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Can Kampuchea be independent? How big powers pull strings in Indochina

By Louis WiznitzerSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 2, 1982

United Nations, N.Y.

The possibility of a thaw in Soviet-Chinese relations has introduced a new element into efforts to bring lasting peace to Indochina.

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But despite a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at Vietnamese-occupied Kampuchea (Cambodia), peace remains elusive.

The essential problem is that Vietnam is unlikely to withdraw from Kampuchea before a tacit triangular deal is struck between the Soviet Union, China, and the United States.

And although a dialogue of sorts has resumed between Moscow and Peking, an arrangement covering the highly sensitive dispute over Indochina is nowhere in sight, analysts here say.

Nonetheless, Vietnam and Thailand are described by well-placed diplomats here as worried about the implications of any Sino-Soviet thaw: ''Both countries want to make sure that their own big 'ally' (the Soviet Union and China, respectively) stays the course and that they will not be left twisting in the wind.''

Thailand fears that China's determination in keeping the Vietnamese out of Kampuchea may slacken and that as a result it would have to live with Vietnamese forces permanently stationed at its borders.'' Thailand's prime minister, Prem Tinsulanond, has scheduled a trip to Peking later this month.

Vietnam has reason to be concerned, because it has had to settle for less twice in its recent history: Once, in the 1954 Geneva conference with the French , the Soviets tacitly forced Vietnam to accept partition of the country into north and south; and in the early 1970s, both China and the Soviets supported President Nixon's request for a delayed takeover of South Vietnam by Hanoi while the US withdrew ''with honor.''

To settle for less now, Vietnam would have to live with an independent Kampuchea - independent of Hanoi as well as Peking.

''Peace is not in sight mainly because ancient, bitter national suspicions - Thailand vs. Vietnam, Vietnam vs. China - have been exacerbated by big-power jockeying for position [Soviet Union, China, US] in Southeast Asia. As each of the players wants to keep the pressure on, neither Cambodia nor Laos nor Vietnam is able to find peace and at the same time to remain independent,'' says a distinguished Southeast Asian diplomat.

Or, as another Indochina expert puts it: ''China, the Soviet Union, and the United States to some degree benefit from the present stalemate, and, despite official statements to the contrary, have no compelling interest to modify the present status quo.''

What do the superpowers gain from the present situation?

* China keeps Vietnam off balance and weakens it through support of the guerrilla war waged against the Vietnamese by the Khmer Rouge and the Nationalist Khmers led by Norodom Sihanouk.

* Moscow strengthens its dealings with Peking by having Vietnam act as a spearhead directed at China's underbelly. Also, thanks to Vietnam's dependency on the Soviet Union, the Soviets enjoy naval and air facilities in south Vietnam.

* The US, by supporting Thailand, China, and the Nationalist Khmers, keeps a foot in the area and good relations with China.

Meanwhile, the 35,000 Khmer combatants (22,000 Khmer Rouge and 13,000 Nationalists under Sihanouk's leadership) are not expected to expel Vietnam's 180,000 troops from Kampuchea. But neither can the Vietnamese finish off the rebels.