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Return to Indochina; Thailand: the domino that didn't fall

(Page 2 of 4)

In foreign affairs, Thailand may actually have benefited, in some ways, from having the Vietnamese Army push right up to its border. The country has had to cope with a major refugee problem. But international agencies working in that field have brought to Thailand a major infusion of spending.

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The perception that there is a Vietnamese threat has helped bring together the five nations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which Thailand plays an important role. The withdrawal of American military forces from Thailand at the end of the Vietnam war has helped to concentrate Thai minds.

The United States, in the meantime, has reaffirmed its pledge to come to the aid of Thailand should it be threatened by outside force. But that has apparently not been enough for the Thais, and they have picked up what amounts to an additional security guarantee from China. The Chinese have indicated that should Vietnam attack Thailand, China would once again attack Vietnam.

It was only some 15 years ago that China was in the business of promoting a guerrilla war against Thailand. But the pragmatic leaders in Peking are interested mainly in one thing these days -- making friends in the region who can help them counter the Soviet Union and its friends in the region.

The Chinese have cut their support for the Communist Party of Thailand, thus making Thailand safer from guerrilla war. Some of the oil China used to ship to Vietnam now goes to Thailand.

The Thais, for their part, have let China ship weapons through Thailand to the Khmer Rouge forces fighting the Vietnamese in neighboring Kampuchea.

''Who would have imagined in 1970 that by 1980, the US, China, and the Thais would be lined up together against Vietnam?'' asked a pleased American diplomat.

''The elements of Thai foreign policy are fairly simple,'' said a Western political scientist with long experience in Thailand. ''First, find out who is going to win and get on their side. Second, find somebody else to pay the bills.

''This analyst went on, ''The Thais have made the judgment that the Vietnamese are never going to make anything of themselves as a country because they are so internally divided. The stalemate in Cambodia has been favorable to the Thais, not to Vietnam.

''Vietnam's options against Thailand appear for the moment to be limited. Vietnam has its hands full trying both to suppress the Khmer Rouge and to defend itself against Asia's colossus, Communist China.

A decades-old pattern of rivalry between Thailand and Vietnam has, meanwhile, asserted itself. In an effort to keep the heat on Vietnam, Thailand has played a key behind-the-scenes role in attempting to bring together Khmer factions opposed to the Vietnamese.

On the domestic political front, Thailand has handled itself less adroitly. In April of last year, young Army colonels seized Bangkok in an abortive coup. King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit opposed the coup, and that helped break it up.

It was not the first time that the royal family had intervened in politics. But each time the sovereigns enter that imperfect world, their standing as symbols of national unity is jeopardized.

The royal image has been sinking of late, at least in the gossipy city of Bangkok, partly because of the crown prince's peccadilloes and partly because of the Queen's alleged involvement in securing promotions for favored Army officers.