Hong Kong — The latest outburst in the war of words China and Vietnam are waging over border clashes has left diplomatic analysts wondering just what's behind it all.
One school of thought contends two protest notes by China and countercharges by Vietnam reflect local frictions and more agressive patrolling on the border that separates the two countries.
But another line of reasoning links what is happening on the China-Vietnam border to the continuing struggle between the two countries over the future of Cambodia.
A Chinese protest note of May 16 accused Vietnam of "repeated armed provocations and intrusions into China's border areas."
Vietnam countered May 18, accusing China of launching a fresh series of border attacks in what it called an overall strategy against the pro-Vietnamese governments in Cambodia and Laos.
The Chinese protest note of May 16 said that in recent weeks the Vietnamese had "intensified their efforts to fire and shell Chinese territory every day from many sectors along the border."
Referring to an incident inwhich China claims to have killed more than 100 Vietnamese intruders May 7, the note says the Vietnamese "did not restrain themselves" and continued their harassment.
The language of this protest note is taken by China analysts to signify a stronger warning than was contained in a note issued May 5. The May 16 note declared that unless Vietnam immediately ceases intrusions and provocations, "The Vietnamese authorities must be held totally responsible for all the consequences arising therefrom."
Meanwhile the Chinese newspaper, the People's Daily, said Chinese border guards killed 23 Vietnamese troops May 10 and 11. On May 6 Vietnamese artillery killed or wounded 21 Chinese soldiers, the paper said.
The Vietnam News Agency countered with charges that Chinese artillery had killed a number of Vietnamese civilians and wounded others during a May 9-13 shelling from a hilltop position in Vietnam.
If true, the accusations may reflect the most serious fighting since China and Vietnam fought a limited war in early 1979. China's invasion of Vietnam was then designed to weaken Vietnam and retaliate for its invasion and occupation of Cambodia.
Some analysts think the present fighting is related largely to escalating local tensions in border areas. But others think that, as before, the border scene cannot be separated from the Cambodian situation.
Vietnam may be patrolling more aggressively to warn China against supplying arms to a possible anti-Vietnamese "united front" in Cambodia. Until recently China had confined its arms shipments to the anti-Vietnamese communist Khmer Rouge.
But this month China sent its first publicly reported cache of arms to the anticommunist forces of Son Sann, a possible participant in a "united front."
Another possible participant, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, said recently that China's Deng Xiaoping has agreed to send his forces a small amount of arms.
China may also have become more aggressive on its border with Vietnam to warn Hanoi of the dangers of strengthening its military presence in Cambodia.
Vietnam is reported to have sent fresh troops to Cambodia recently. Any prospect that a "united front" would materialize could tempt Vietnam to step up its military operations in Cambodia.
Meanwhile the Foreign Ministry of Vietnam-aligned Laos has reportedly accused china of striking across the Lao border and building defenses on Lao territory.
Some, but not all, analysts view Laos as a weak point in which a limited Chinese invasion could put pressure on Vietnam by forcing it to spread its troops even thinner.
In any case, it has long been clear that China regards its border with Vietnam as a way to drain Vietnamese resources and warn the Vietnamese when their actions elsewhere are unacceptable. This is why the present situation is being scrutinized for any tie-in with Cambodia.