The focus of world attention has been on fighting in the Mideast. But a little-noticed yet perhaps equally important development may be taking place on the other side of Asia.
It is the prospect of persistent and steady growth of Soviet naval power in the Pacific.
The issue was highlighted recently by the Senate hearing testimony of Richard Armitage, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Vietnam has opened the door to growing Soviet influence in the region, he said, adding, "There will be no Soviet reluctance to go in."
Mr. Armitage was referring to Hanoi's granting the Soviets the right to establish Navy bases at Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. He said the Soviet Union sought to outflank China and to gain a position astride the major sea lanes linking East Asia, especially Japan, with oil regions in Southwest Asia.
"The Soviets have come to play an increasingly ominous role in the affairs of Southeast Asia," Mr. Armitage told a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee.
What first opened these former American bases to Soviet use was China's invasion of vietnam in early 1979. In order to gain support against China and assistance for its battered economy, Vietnam agreed to make these ports available for servicing stops by the Soviet Navy.
This was a truly historic change. Soviet naval vessels were no longer confined for service to the port of Vladivostok. Now they could be expected to cruise more efficiently in the waters off southern China and Southeast Asia. The wheel of history had come full circle, for it was basing rights in Vietnam (then French Indochina) that enabled czarist Russia to move its European fleet to Asia for battle with the Japanese Navy in the war of 1904-1905.
The questions now are how much farther the Soviets are likely to go and what, if anything, can be done to stop them.
Mr. Armitage's testimony suggested the Soviets may now upgrade their Da Nang and Cam Ranh facilities as a counter both to China and to the US facilities in the Philippines, Subic Navy Base and Clark Air Base.He said the Philippines bases are increasingly important as Pacific-based US military resources are stretched to cover the Indian Ocean and Southwest Asia.
Elsewhere there have been reports that the Soviets would like to set up a base at the port of Kompong Som in Vietnamese-Occupied Cambodia.
Indeed, the Soviet Union has long sought to break out of its confinement to naval bases in its northern, cold water ports. Its longtime ambition has been to project its naval out- reach worldwide.
Now the prospect of stepped-up Chinese- American military cooperation, including possible sale of arms and technology to China, gives the Soviets an added reason to escape "encirclement." One way is to expand Soviet naval power in the Pacific.
But how much more is Vietnam willing to give the Soviet Union in basing rights?
For some time there have been hints of friction between Vietnam and the Soviet Union, notably over Cambodia. There are indications that Vietnam looks suspiciously on Soviet efforts to train and equip a Cambodian army, according to Nayan Chanda of the Far Eastern Economic Review. A possible Vietnamese concern is that the growing quantity of Soviet economic and military aid in Cambodia, including advisers, could reduce Vietnam's influence on the Phnom Penh government.
Mr. Chanda's stature as an Indochina expert is such that noncommunist Southeast Asian governments have been discussing the implications of his article for their own policies toward Vietnam. Is there firm enough evidence of a real split? They are asking. If so, what should be done?
Hard-liners advocating diplomatic and economic boycott of Vietnam have long argued that continued pressure would eventually cause a split between Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Vietnam would realize the dangers of excessive dependence on the Soviet Union and be forced to moderate its aims.
"Soft-line" advocates of improving relations with vietnam countered that continuing the boycott of Vietnam will actually increase its dependence on Moscow and open the way for a stronger Soviet naval presence.
Now hard-liners can cite Mr. Chanda's findings as proof that their approach of boycotting Vietnam is working by causing Hanoi to sour on the Russians. But "soft- liners" equally can seize on Mr. Chanda's findings to demonstrate the time is ripe for fresh overtures to Vietnam with the object of weaning Hanoi away from the Soviet Union.
Whatever its own preference, it seems clear that Vietnam will remain vulnerable to Soviet pressure to grant additional basing privileges as long as Vietnam's costly military confrontation with China and its costly occupation of Cambodia make it economically and militarily dependent on Moscow.
So far there is no sign China is prepared to reduce its effort to bleed Vietnam. Peking continues to support Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Cambodia and to maintain a military buildup on the its border with Vietnam.
And so far there is no sign that Vietnam is willing to withdraw from Cambodia and mend its fences with China in an effort to reduce its dependence on the Soviet Union. Vietnam's posture toward noncommunist Southeast Asia is still proudly defiant.
For now, then, it seems reasonable to conclude that vietnam's dependence on the Soviet union will allow Moscow's Vietnam-based naval buildup to continue.