US links with Vietnam set to strain China ties

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The restoration of full diplomatic ties between the US and Vietnam, expected to be outlined by President Bill Clinton today, will have one big unintended side-effect: it will worsen the crisis in relations between Washington and Peking, set off by China's arrest of a crusading Chinese- American human rights activist on charges carrying the death penalty.

According to senior officials, Mr Clinton will make an "announcement" on Vietnam at a White House ceremony today, to which key congressional leaders have been invited. Though no details have been divulged, the President is expected to give the go-ahead for normalisation of relations with Hanoi, 20 years after the fall of Saigon to the troops of North Vietnam and the end of America's most traumatic and humiliating military experience this century.

The move will please Hanoi as well as a considerable lobby here, ranging from the State Department to US business interests and decorated Vietnam war veterans, such as Senators John McCain and John Kerrey, who believe it is long overdue. Others, including veterans' groups and a clutch of Republican presidential candidates, will disapprove. So too, not least, will Peking.

Vietnam and China are where America's past and future in east Asia intersect. The absence of proper ties with Vietnam is an anchronistic vestige of a bitter war, in which some 2,500 American servicemen remain unaccounted for. In fact, as Mr Kerrey points out, no war in history has been followed by such exhaustive efforts to trace those missing in combat, and the restoration of full relations will only speed those efforts further.

But for those alarmed by multiplying signs of Chinese expansionism, normalisation has a second strategic virtue. Hanoi and Peking are historic rivals, and the "containment" school argues that stronger US ties with Vietnam can only strengthen the country as a balance to Chinese ambitions in the region.

No such logic applies to current Sino-US relations. Even before the detention and arrest of the Chinese-American campaigner Harry Wu, Washington and Peking were feuding over trade and human rights, Taiwan and sales of Chinese nuclear technology to Pakistan and Iran. Lurking in the background are China's military build-up and its belligerent stance on the oil-rich Spratly Islands, claimed by five other east Asian countries, including Vietnam.

Mr Clinton's stroke of fortune, perhaps, is that the vexed annual issue of China's "most favoured nation" trading status does not come around again until next June. Had the Wu affair blown up a few weeks earlier, the President could have been under irresistible pressure to "punish" China by withdrawing MFN, guaranteeing even greater ructions.

Even so, congressional rumblings grow louder by the day.