LAST MONTH, for the first time ever, a foreign minister of Vietnam -- who is also a Communist Party politburo member -- was received by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Many committee members welcomed the closed-door meeting with Nguyen Co Thach as an important step toward "normalization" of relations with a former enemy.

But these exuberant senators and their allies in the business community, the bureaucracy and the media fail to recognize that the Vietnamese communists, far from becoming more open to the tide of democratization and nationalism that has swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, are moving to insulate their regime from it.

Together with the Cubans and the North Koreans, the Vietnamese communists are helping to form a

ew rump communist bloc, with China as its inspirational center. America's evolving post-Cold War policy must take this new reality into account.

The concept of a hard-core communist bloc in East Asia is not new. It was the political reality of the early 1960s, when Mao's totalitarian zeal in domestic and foreign policy put him at odds with the vacillating, less fanatical Nikita Khrushchev.

Today communism is dead in Europe and rapidly decaying in the Soviet Union. But communist orthodoxy is still found in the domestic policies of China, North Korea and Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and the rival communist parties of Cambodia), as well as Cuba. Asia is the main site for the last-ditch stand of the communist world faithful.

One result is the new international order of the communist world. Not only has Cuba abandoned its hostility towards China, and North Korea its neutrality between China and the Soviet Union, but now Vietnam is moving to restore comradely relations with China, its erstwhile enemy. This diplomatic warming comes in the wake of longstanding contention between Vietnam and China over the independence and alignment of Cambodia, a rivalry that exploded into open hostility in 1979 and kept the two in a state of emnity for 11 years.

What has changed the attitudes of Vietnam and the other communist states towards China is not only communism's European collapse but the defense of communism by the Chinese leadership in Tiananmen Square. Mikhail Gorbachev is now seen as a revisionist heretic, directly responsible for the collapse of Leninism in Europe. The Chinese leaders, on the other hand, have demonstrated that a resolute communist party leadership can defend Leninist rule.

The members of the new communist bloc have concluded that either they hang together or else they will hang separately. This judgment was admitted by the Vietnamese Communist Party general secretary, Nguyen Van Linh, in an interview with the French Communist Party newspaper L'Humanite on June 14. Linh argued that the Eastern European upheavals had made possible a counteroffensive by "reactionary forces" which were trying to destroy socialism. "In this context . . . it is necessary to maintain good relations with the forces which are defending socialism in the world. We think that the CPC and the Chinese government are committed to the path of building socialism. The international situation requires us to give new impetus to our relations."

China and Vietnam have been developing their cross-border trade over the past year. Efforts to solve the war in Cambodia, which foundered during several Sino-Vietnamese meetings earlier this year, finally bore fruit in early September. The situation has yet to be fully resolved, but opinion in Hanoi seems to have tipped in favor of settling the Cambodia conflict politically, rather than militarily. This is due to fear of the imminent drying up of Soviet aid, combined with the fear of party cadres having been contaminated by "revisionist" ideas.

The profound political changes in the former Soviet bloc which led to the international realignment of Vietnam and the other communist states with China are also driving these regimes towards greater internal repression. Once again, the Chinese model is relevant. Tiananmen was both a warning and a reassurance: It was a warning that the menace of "reactionary bourgeois" liberal ideas can result in a political challenge to the regime; it was also a reassurance that a confident Leninist party leadership can loosen up its control over the economy and still maintain its rigid control over political life. Vietnam began a process of economic liberalization after the Sixth Party Congress of 1986. But party writings have emphasized that the reforms, which include a liberal foreign investment code and private enterprise in agricultural and service sectors, will retain a large nationalized segment of what is still a predominantly socialist economy. And the political system will not only remain unreformed but subject to more vigilant defense.

The first signs of anxiety over the security of the political system came in August 1989, when General Secretary Linh condemned the Polish Communist Party's sharing of power with Solidarity. The Vietnamese leaders went so far as to stage mass rallies in Hanoi denouncing Poland's partial democratization as a "counterrevolutionary coup."

The subsequent upheavals in Eastern Europe were reported with little comment, silence concealing obvious shock and fear at the fate of Hanoi's staunch allies in East Berlin, Prague and Sofia. Then last March, the eighth plenum of the party's Central Committee stated its view: "The imperialist and reactionary forces are thoroughly exploiting the difficulties of socialist countries in order to intensify their intervention and sabotage and to carry out peaceful developments with the aim of wiping out socialist countries . . . . A fierce struggle to protect and develop socialism is taking place."

Party Secretary Linh has long been touted as "Vietnam's Gorbachev" by sympathetic Western commentators. But Linh's 1989 Poland speech and his recent denunciations of pluralism and multiparty democracy have disabused many Vietnam-watchers. In an interview with the Soviet government newspaper Izvestia in May, Linh stated: "The Vietnamese people, on the basis of their historical experience -- for which we paid a high price -- recognize the CPV {Communist Party of Vietnam} as their sole leading force and reject political pluralism along with the multiparty system. They reject the possibility of opposition trends and parties existing in our society." Throughout 1990 the Vietnamese media has been inundated with articles along the same line, with indicative titles like that in the May 30 issue of the army newspaper: "Political Pluralism -- the Path to Destruction of Socialism."

The only serious candidate for the title "Vietnam's Gorbachev" was former politburo member Tran Xuan Bach. In the wake of the collapse of communism in Europe, Bach made mild speeches calling for party reform, though not a multiparty system. In response, Bach was removed from the Politburo, Secretariat and Central Committee.

In May, on the occasion of Ho Chi Minh's 100th birthday celebrations, several prominent southern dissidents, many associated with the southern communist Resistance Tradition Club, were placed under house arrest to prevent pro-reform demonstrations.

The crackdown on Vietnamese communist dissidents even spread to friendly foreigners. The American businessman Michael Morrow, a former journalist who reported from Saigon during the Vietnam War years, was arrested in Da Nang on April 23 and accused of "espionage activities" and "attempting to destabilize the Vietnamese government." During his interrogation, Morrow reports, the Vietnamese authorities continually came back to questioning him about knowledge of a possible Tiananmen Square-type incident. After three weeks of detention, Morrow was released. Such developments provide the context for evaluating America's Vietnam policy. Until now there have been two preconditions for "normalization". One has been Vietnamese cooperation in a political settlement in Cambodia; the other has been cooperation in accounting for American MIAs. Yet the failure to identify concern for human rights in Vietnam as an issue, and the lack of specific details by the administration and Congress on what would constitute "normalization," have raised questions about the moral dimension of American foreign policy in this instance.

An American foreign policy which is realistic and concerned with all relevant moral issues will have to be discriminating and modulated. For example, if Vietnam abides by the provisions of the United Nations plan for peace in Cambodia, or expedites the process of honest accounting for the American MIAs, it has to be rewarded.

But normalization must be understood as a process, not a single event. And Vietnam's rewards -- diplomatic recognition and the end of the international embargo against it -- will each have to be modulated in piecemeal steps, in accordance with evidence that Hanoi has actually abided by each phase of the long process of political settlement in Cambodia. Hanoi's compliance will only begin with its signing an agreement. It will next involve ending Vietnamese arms supplies to Phnom Penh, withdrawing all its troops and advisers from Cambodia under U.N. inspection and allowing genuinely free elections to be prepared and held under a potent U.N. administration. The United States simply cannot ignore Hanoi's record of violating signed agreements. That record includes the 1954 Geneva Agreements (for example, Hanoi violated the provisions for free movement of civilians in 1955), the 1962 Geneva Agreement on Laos (it reinserted forces into Laos) and the 1973 Paris Agreements (among other things, Hanoi retained forces in Laos and Cambodia).

But assuming Vietnam's cooperation on Cambodia and on the MIA question, the issue of human rights will still remain. Many congressmen, especially Sens. George Mitchell, Alan Cranston and John Kerry, have strongly criticized the inconsistency of the Bush administration's reaction towards the human-rights policies of the Soviet Union on the one hand and China on the other. But the same argument can be applied to these senators, who show much concern for China's human-rights violations but much less concern for comparable violations in Vietnam. Moreover, the United States has special reason for concern on this matter, since so many of the victims of rights abuses are those Vietnamese who fought in alliance with the United States and were left behind in the shameful exodus of 1975. American policymakers will have to ensure that the terms of any trade agreement, and "most favored nation" status, are the carrots to he held in reserve, pending improvement of Vietnam's human-rights policies.

It may still be argued that extensive personal, economic and cultural contacts with the West will necessarily soften the human-rights policy of the regime. But the recent example of China should surely have put that argument to rest.

Insofar as Vietnam truly abandons its role as a regional aggressor it must be rewarded by the United States. But if the United States is to be true to its core moral values, it will have to retain at least some political distance from Vietnam until the Vietnamese communists can find it within themselves to bring to power a real Vietnamese Gorbachev.

Stephen Morris is an associate of the Center for International Affairs and a fellow of the Russian Research Center at Harvard.