Two, Four, Six, Eight,Time To Open Up The Gate

When Vietnam began handing out oil-development leases in 1990, Mobil Oil Corp. executives kept their fingers crossed. The U.S. trade embargo barred Mobil from bidding, but the company hoped Vietnam would save a few choice concessions for Americans until after the ban ended. But that's not how things worked out. Last January Hanoi gave drilling rights for the last of its proven reserves to French and Japanese companies.

But there may still be hope for other U.S. companies. President Clinton is expected to announce the embargo's end this spring--perhaps as soon as the end of April. Clinton's move may come ahead of a key meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington on Apr. 28. Even if the President waits longer, the end of the embargo seems assured. The ban expires in September, and Clinton is unlikely to call for its renewal. That will pave the way for a rush into the market by American industries ranging from telecommunications to hotels to airlines.

MOMENTUM. Clinton, however, can expect criticism from some veterans' groups and families of MIAs. Aides worry about the consequences for a President who avoided service in Vietnam and set off a controversy with his proposal to permit gays in the military. Says one source familiar with the White House deliberations: "Economically, this decision is a no-brainer. Vietnam is going to be one of the Asian Tigers. But the politics of the decision cut the other way." Momentum has been building for weeks for a breakthrough. In January, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs issued a report that cited Hanoi's help in investigating the fate of MIAs. Since then, such influential GOP senators as Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Larry Pressler of South Dakota have urged an end to sanctions.

The IMF/World Bank meeting may force Clinton to move. The IMF is likely to approve a French plan for a consortium to lend Vietnam $140 million to clear its arrears with the fund. That would make Hanoi eligible for fresh IMF and World Bank loans. The Bush Administration, with reluctant help from the Japanese, blocked similar French efforts in the past. But Tokyo is balking this time. In November, it offered Hanoi a $395 million commodity loan. In late March, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa said Japan would send a delegation to study infrastructure projects that it might finance.

Once the ban is lifted, Asian observers see Americans enjoying a honeymoon in Vietnam. "We are very keen to have cooperation with American companies," says Ba Nguyen, director of Ho Chi Minh City Post & Telecommunications. With business leaders arguing that lifting the ban will create jobs, it's unlikely that pressure from MIA groups will sway Clinton. Even the veterans' community is divided. The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S.A. opposes lifting the ban, but the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation supports its end. There is no such division among U.S. companies--and they will howl if Clinton waits much longer.