Sen. Jesse Helms put business interests ahead of his anti-communist feelings Monday, welcoming Vietnam’s charge d’affairs to a trade conference.
Helms, who has criticized President Clinton’s efforts to normalize relations with Vietnam, welcomed Le Van Bang to the conference at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was attended by diplomats from several other countries as well.
In doing so, Helms said differences between Vietnam and the United States over human rights and missing American servicemen shouldn’t stand in the way of business relations.
“We have to consider that the future of North Carolina, in my judgment, will depend on how much we export,” Helms said. “We live in this world. We need to participate in the affairs of this world.”
Bang said the North Carolina Republican has asked trade officials from Hanoi to smooth the way for a visit by tobacco association leaders. Smoking is becoming more popular in Vietnam as people have more money to spend, and Vietnam can’t grow enough tobacco to keep up with demand, Bang said.
“American brands like Marlboro or Salem (are) very popular,” Bang said.
Diplomats from six other countries, including Thailand and the Philippines, also attended the conference devoted to expanding trade with the booming economies of Southeast Asia.
Helms said he welcomed the chance to build business opportunities between his tobacco-growing state and Bang and other diplomats.
Helms and at least eight other members of Congress asked President Clinton last year to postpone opening a liaison office in Hanoi, saying Vietnam seemed unwilling to provide information on American servicemen reported missing in action.
The United States reopened its embassy in Vietnam in August.
Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign relations Committee, said he hasn’t spared Bang his criticisms of the Vietnamese government.
“I am candid with him,” he said Monday. “We have had a very frank discussion about repression in Vietnam.”
A Helms spokesman could not immediately identify which tobacco organization is interested in going to Vietnam or when a visit was planned.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco International Inc. has established business links in Vietnam as relations between the two countries have improved. RJR is helping Vietnamese farmers grow tobacco in a $21 million joint venture.
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