Singapore — Opposing Asian countries are pressing with new vigor to find ways to defuse the potentially explosive confrontation over Cambodia. Future compromise cannot be ruled out. But so far there is little sign that initiatives by China, Vietnam, and other countries are much more than propaganda designed to "look good" for the United Nations General Assembly opening Sept. 15 .
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines) oppose Vietnam's military occupation of Cambodia. To maintain pressure on Hanoi, they want the Khmer Rouge (ousted by Vietnamese troops in early 1979) to retain Cambodia's UN seat.
Vietnam says its troops remain in Cambodia to prevent China from putting the Khmer Rouge back in power. It wants the UN seat given to the Hanoi-dominated Heng Samrin government in Phnom Phenh.
The anti-Vietnam forces are expected to win out again this year in keeping Cambodia's seat for the Khmer Rouge. But as the General Assembly session approaches, both sides are maneuvering to keep the initiative. Some examples:
Vietnam on Sept. 13 delivered a note in Peking asking China to resume talks on the future of Cambodia.
The move came at the same time New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon reported that China is willing to enter into talks on Cambodia without demanding the withdrawal of the 200,000 Vietnamese troops there as a precondition. China now supplies arms and other support to the Khmer Rouge.
Should Vietnam be willing to withdraw its troops, then China would be willing to work with Hanoi and ASEAN members to guarantee an independent democratic Cambodian government, Mr. Muldoon said he was told by China's new Premier Zhao Ziyang.
Mr. Muldoon's assessment of what may be a new Chinese position seemed to dovetail with one made Sept. 8 by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Both help cast China in more favorable light.
Mr. Lee, as quoted by Reuter news agency, said China eventually might be prepared to drop its support for the ousted Khmer Rouge in favor of a new nationalist government in Cambodia. He was speaking to newsmen while returning to Singapore from a Commonwealth heads-of-state conference in New Delhi.
On another occasion, Prime Minister Lee was quoted as suggesting that some sort of international control might replace Vietnamese troops to protect Cambodians from harassment by guerrillas.
During the General Assembly session, ASEAN countries are expected to present their own peace plan for Cambodia.
This is partly to overcome the stigma of appearing to back the brutal Khmer Rouge and partly to counter the favorable publicity Vietnam has already earned by proposing a UN-supervised demilitarized zone on both sides of the Thai-Cambodia border.
Thailand rejects the proposal and says the demilitarized zone should be only in Cambodia. The proposal is designed to distract attention from Vietnam's continuing military occupation of Cambodia, ASEAN maintains.
In what may be a preview of ASEAN's peace plan before the General Assembly, Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda Sept. 11 proposed an international conference. Its aim would be to resolve the Cambodian conflict "without a loss of face or interest for anyone."
Despite the talk of peace proposals, however, the danger of fighting remains. On several occasions, public and private, China has warned it will intervene to support Thailand if Vietnamese troops based in Cambodia attack Thai forces.
And those favoring a negotiated settlement face another major obstacle: Even if Vietnam were willing to withdraw troops from Cambodia, there is no unified "third force" to take the Heng Samrin government's place.
As long as the alternatives are limited to Vietnamese domination or China-backed Khmer Rouge rule, most neutral observers see little room from compromise.