Indochina poised on the brink of war -- or peace

Neither total war nor total peace. That seems the outlook for Indochina as the new year opens. For Vietnam there is a declining economy -- squeezed by the military drain of guarding against China to the north and fighting the China-backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

For Cambodia there is continuing war and hunger -- as 200,000 Vietnamese troops continue to pursue 20,000 to 30,000 Khmer Rouge holdouts, many in the rugged mountains of western Cambodia.

For tiny Laos there is the difficult problem of dealing with growing Vietnamese influence without provoking China to the north. While Lao and Vietnamese soldiers try to subdue Meo hill tribes, there is an everpresent danger that China could invade Laos to strike at Vietnam.

For all three Indochinese countries the new year brings home one stark fact -- five years after the end of the US involvement in Indochina, peace and reconstruction have still failed to take hold.

In Vietnam a constant war footing limits the prospects for "butter" instead of "guns." Young men work rifles, not plows.

In Cambodia warring parties destroy food in efforts to cripple the enemy; failure to plant new crops threatens more hunger and famine next year.

In Laos shortage of foreign aid and an exodus of the skilled middle class creates an austerity that makes it hard to prevent still more refugees from leaving.

For the last three years Vietnam's influence, even dominance, in Indochina has risen. Paradoxically the more China and the United States have resisted this trend, the stronger it has become.

Thus China's support for the Pol Pot regime after 1975 was seen by Vietnam as provocation for its invasion and takeover of Cambodia in January 1979. And China's invasion of northern Vietnam in February 1979 led to increased Vietnamese influence in Laos in subsequent months.

So far the consolidation of Vietnamese influence and control has gone hand in hand with economic decline and isolation of the entire Indochina region. Both China and the US appear to be banking on the hope this decline eventually will force Vietnam to moderate its ambitions.

So far there is no sign that either China or Vietnam is backing off from the policies that have brought continuing war and suffering to the region. China recently reaffirmed its support for the Khmer Rouge, whose continuing power in Cambodia is intolerable to Vietnam.

Vietnam, for its part, rejects any "political solution" headed by some "third force" leader such as Cambodia's former ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. And the Khmer Rouge, after ditching Pol Pot as premier in an apparent effort to soften its image of brutality, courts Westerners for aid. Journalists and others, once greeted by Khmer Rouge frowns, now get plenty of smiles.

There is no evidence that China is actively planning a "second lesson" against Vietnam. But China appears confident it has Vietnam in an economic, political, and strategic strangle- hold.

Chinese spokesmen once expressed grave concern about the growth of Soviet bases in Vietnam. Today they are more casual. "We lived with American bases around us for 20 years. So why should a few Soviet ones bother us?" asked one.

The Chinese say Vietnam will prove such an economic drain on Moscow that the Soviet Union eventually will be forced to temper its support.

In late December, Thailand's forces entered into special readiness lest Vietnam's massed tropps chase Khmer Rouge into Thailand in "hot pursuit." In the next few months there is the theoritical possibility that Thai and Vietnamese troops could clash on the Cambodian border.

But Thai generals express confidence they can handle any crisis. And most observers believe both the Thais and the Vietnamese will handle themselves with restraint.

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