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The question is no long whether the United States should resume diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Rather, the question is simply how rapidly this objective should be accomplished and under what conditions.

The answer is that ties between Washington and Hanoi can be restored more quickly and generously than seemed to be the case only a few months ago.As recently as last October, this page complained that Vietnam's communist leaders seemed more interested in hanging on to power than they did in overhauling the bankrupt political and economic system that even the former Soviet Union is abandoning.

But, happily, such intransigence seems to be weakening. This week Scripps Howard News Service reported that besides privatizing farming in 1990, Hanoi recently has encouraged small business to engage in capitalism - a trend that "is gradually creeping up to bigger industries."

In addition to such modest economic reforms, Hanoi is said to have closed the last of its notorious postwar "re-education" camps. And in Cambodia, where Vietnam pulls the strings of a puppet government, Hanoi has agreed to free elections.

These developments should add impetus to the talks that the United States and Vietnam opened last Jan. 29 in the first formal step toward re-establishing diplomatic ties. The talks are going so well that Washington agreed a few days ago to provide at least a token amount of disaster relief to help Vietnamese victims of a killer cyclone.

What about the hurdle posed by the lingering thought that some American servicemen may still be held as prisoners of war in Vietnam?

This possibility looks increasingly far-fetched. As Knight-Ridder News Service noted this week, of the 1,656 Americans listed as missing in Vietnam, "nearly half were never really considered either missing in action or prisoners of war. They were considered killed in action, within sight of their comrades, but their bodies were never recovered."

For that matter, the percentage of Americans listed as missing in Vietnam - 4.2 percent - is far smaller than that from World War II or the Korean War. American bombing in Vietnam was extensive and sometimes indiscriminate, destroying at times parts of cemeteries that contained not only Vietnamese but also Americans. No wonder Hanoi is unable to account for 100,000 of its own missing troops.

By normalizing relations with Hanoi, Washington can open a new market to American products and add impetus to the deterioration of communism in Asia. In the end, U.S. economic prowess could still prevail in Vietnam where U.S. military prowess failed.