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The rapidly changing face of Asia; Cracks in communist Asia's wall

By Frederick A. Moritz, Staff correspondent of The Christian Science MonitorThe writer sums up his impressions after five years in Southeast Asia before returning to the United States. / May 29, 1981



Hong Kong

In China there are hawkers and privately run restaurants where once there were militant left-wing slogans. And in Peking American diplomats do "business as usual" with a government they once ostracized as a threat to world peace.

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In Southeast Asia Soviet naval vessels dock in vietnam at the former US bases of Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay -- projecting their power around the Asian continent.

In Cambodia and Laos there is an impoverished, uneasy peace enforced by Vietnam's occupying troops. Southeast Asia's major insurgency no longer pits communists against capitalists. Intead, it is the communist Khmer Rouge battling the Vietnam-dominated communist government of Cambodia.

In Asia as a whole, China is no longer an inward-looking "paper tiger." Having successfully defied the Soviet Union by invading Moscow's protege as a major regional power. Marxist China now protects Thailand's monarchy an Buddhism against Marxist Vietnam.

Asia today is another world from the scene encountered by this correspondent when he first arrived.

China was still in chains left over from the ultraleft Cultural Revolution.

For Americans, Taiwan is still "China."

The Soviet Navy was still bottled up in Vladivostok.

Vietnam was still defensively warding off bloody attacks ordered by the communist Khmer Rouge rulers of Cambodia.

Southeast Asian nations were still disunited, not yet effectively cemented by the noncommunist grouping known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Above all, the aging Mao Tse-Tung, father of the Chinese communist revolution , still sat uneasily on his throne.

Then it all began. With the death of Mao in the fall of 1976, a new round of purges racked China. Mao's "empress," Jiang Qing, and others of the leftist "gang of four" were hauled off to prison. The "pragmatic survivor," thrice-purged Deng Xiaoping, reemerged as the man who would reshape China's politics, economics, and relations with the outside world. To ward off the Soviet Union and gain technology for modernization, Deng edged closer and closer to the Western world -- and that meant, of course, the United States.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries were wondering nervously if the withdrawal of American power after the 1975 defeat in Vietnam would usher in the "falling of the dominces" to communist power, as some had predicted.

On the other side of the world the US seemed paralyzed, guilt-ridden by Vietnam. US presidents seemed hamstrung by the "anti-imperial" reaction to Watergate. Jimmy Carter seemed more interested in lecturing his Asian ally (South Korea) on human rights than in building up its defenses against what some expected to be an even more aggressive "communist world."

Then came the unexpected. Already split by the Chinese-Russian dispute, the "communist world" crumbled even further. An open border war between Cambodia, ruled by the communist Khmer Rouge, and communist Vietnam showed just how difficult it would be for Vietnam to rule all of Indochina -- let alone dominate all of Southeast Asia.

Noncommunist Southeast Asia breathed a sigh of relief that the communists were having troubles among themselves. Vietnam's war-racked economy deteriorated further.

But for China it was another matter. The impatient, energetic, and aggressive Deng Xiaoping could not tolerate an ever more strongly Soviet-aligned Vietnam moving to dominate all of Indochina.

So Deng increased China's support for Cambodia's Khmer Rouge rulers, despite their bloody reputation, as Vietnam's stubborn and aging leadership move closer to the Soviet Union.

Vietnam retaliated by persecuting its ethnic Chinese minority, who eventually fled by the thousands in boats: this persecution brought an emotional reaction in China, where Vietnam was seen as an outlaw, ungrateful for years of Chinese aid.

Vietnam, it seemed, was not behaving as a proper "tributary" state should.

All this set the stage for the event that was to transform world politics: normalization between the US and China.

Throughout 1978 secret soundings continued. As Vietnam moved closer to the Soviets and hinted at escalating war with Cambodia, Deng speeded the process of normalization with Washington. The result was establishment of diplomatic relations in January 1979.