IF, as expected, United States President Bill Clinton lifts the 19-year-old trade embargo against Vietnam it will simply validate what a growing number of critics have been expounding recently. The embargo's original intention to punish the Vietnamese and force them to account for the US soldiers missing in action (MIA) has simply lost its connection with the new economic realities. Asia has become the world's economic engine and the US cannot afford to stand on the sidelines while foreign rivals capitalise on the opportunities now emerging in all countries, including Vietnam. Perhaps the most damning criticism about the embargo is the fact it has lost its bite by failing to stop US products from being sold in Vietnam or enhancing a resolution to the MIA issue. You only have to walk down streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to find a wide variety of US goods ranging from Marlboro cigarettes to Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola and Levi's jeans - many of them smuggled into the country or legitimately imported by Singapore wholesalers. Perhaps the best indication of effective foreign strategy adopted by the US is its policy of engagement with China. By encouraging trade and diplomatic relations, the US has made inroads into human rights abuses and prison labour while helping to improve the standard of living for many Chinese. This approach must be adopted with Vietnam as well if the US is to rid itself of the emotional baggage it has been burdened with during the 20 years since the Vietnam War. The best way for the Americans to resolve the MIA issues is to have US businessmen and diplomats on the ground in Vietnam. It is simply the best way for more information to become known. American Chamber of Commerce vice-chairman Steven Senderling, who served in the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that 40 years after the conclusion of the Korean War, the US was still getting remains of its soldiers. ''The policy of engagement has proven to be the right policy in China, and now we see it in other areas of the world,'' he said. ''I think the administration realises the potential economic benefits, and the fact Vietnam will be integrated into formal organisation such as ASEAN and APEC.'' The American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hong Kong has been among the strongest advocates of the embargo's removal, and backed up its stance with visits to Washington and in discussions with visiting US officials. AmCham chairman Gerald Murdock and AmCham president Frank Martin are now in Washington on yet another trip to lobby the Clinton administration to make the necessary and practical decision about Vietnam. It is important not to take their efforts lightly because their schedule includes meetings with Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord and senior officials from the National Security Council, National Economic Council and the State Department's Vietnam desk. If the Americans continue to delay their re-entry to Vietnam, they will miss out on a market with 70 million consumers with a strong appetite for foreign consumer goods - including television sets, pagers and beer. Mr Clinton, who has faced a painful collection of controversial political situations since taking office, must be uncharacteristically decisive by following the lead already taken by senior members of his Administration and lift the embargo. The political backing is already there after the Senate voted 62 to 38 last week to pass a non-binding resolution urging the president to end the embargo. The resolution has emotional clout because it was sponsored by Senator John Kerry, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, and John McCan, a former Vietnamese PoW. Mr Clinton will also find it difficult to deny the growing US presence in Vietnam. Pepsi-Cola announced last March, for example, that it had signed a joint venture agreement to set up a bottling plant in Ho Chi Minh City, and invest US$10 million once the embargo was lifted. In a flurry of action, other firms such as IBM, Digital and Coca-Cola have also signed agreements that basically provide them with the structure to quickly penetrate the market. Hong Kong investors have already capitalised on the many opportunities which Vietnam offers. According to Vietnamese Government statistics, Hong Kong investors have participated in 160 projects and invested US$1.2 billion. In fact, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea are the four most active investors in Vietnam, accounting for more than half total investment. The message to Mr Clinton is clear: ''Do the courageous thing and lift the embargo now''.