Vietnam offers Thailand an olive branch -- and a warning

Vietnam has called for friendly relations with its noncommunist Southeast Asian neighbors. But in thinly veiled language it has also left the impression it may use military force against Thailand if that country helps the Chinese-backed, anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Vietnam's Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach gave this message to The Christian Science Monitor in the form of written replies to written questions submitted during Mr. Thach's visit here last month. The Vietnamese Embassy here said there was no time for an interview in person.

In his answers Mr. Thach stressed a desire for peaceful relations with Thailand.

When asked if Vietnam could eliminate the Khmer Rouge if it really wanted to -- although it has so far refrained from doing so -- he replied:

"That is true. Because Vietnam respects Thailand's independence, sovereignty , territorial integrity and security and also because Vietnam does not adopt the 'hot pursuit' theory."

Some commentators suggest Vietnam refrained from a massive dry-season offensive against the Khmer Rouge last winter because the Soviet Union did not want tensions with the United States to grow in Southeast Asia. At any rate many military analysts agree that the Khmer Rouge could not have been wiped out unless the Vietnamese Army had been willing to cross in "hot pursuit" into thailand.

According to one analyst Mr. Thach's response suggests Vietnam values improved relations with Thailand and other noncommunist Southeast Asian countries even more than total elimination of Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

But there was also what some see as an implied threat in Mr. Thach's comment.

Asked what Vietnam would be willing to offer Thailand in return for a clampdown on Chinese aid passing through Thailand to the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Thach replied:

"We have kept stating that we would respect Thailand's independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security."

To one high-ranking Thai source this suggests that Vietnam is warning of military action against Thailand unless Thailand complies with what Vietnam wants.

"The very fact that they keep saying they will not attack us is their way of warning us that they might," notes the source.

Mr. Thach gave no hint of a compromise- broadened Cambodian government, other than to say, "The Kampuchean people will have a constitution and hold general elections soon."

Theoretically this formula could later be expanded to allow some noncommunist participation -- or even participation by former Cambodian ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

But a major purpose could also be to "legitimize" the present Vietnam-backed Heng Samrin government, which many nations do not recognize because it was installed by Vietnamese tanks in early 1979.

Mr. Thach also refused to budge from Vietnam's position on just when it will withdraw some 200,000 troops from Cambodia.

"When the Chinese threat is removed, Vietnam's military presence will no longer be necessary," he replied.

This formula could be used to justify an open-ended Vietnamese military occupation of Cambodia. But Vietnamese military and civilian leaders have repeatedly said they recognize the danger of growing anti-Vietnamese feeling among Cambodians if Vietnamese soldiers stay too long.

So the formula could also allow for at least partial Vietnamese withdrawal, especially near the Thai border, if Chinese aid to the Khmer Rouge is reduced.

On better relations with the US, Mr. Thach refused one concession.

Asked if Vietnam would be willing to place limits on the use of Vietnamese ports by Soviet ships, he replied:

"No conditions shall be attached to the normalization of relations between the two countries. There is no Soviet military base in Vietnam."

According to some analysts, there may technically and legally be no Soviet base in Vietnam. But the use of Vietnamese ports for naval resupply in effect serves the same purpose.

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