Vietnam's twofold drive: batter the Khmers, court the US

Squeezed between the rival Soviet and Chinese communist giants, threatened with polticial and economic suffocation, Vietnam is reaching out to ``capitalist America.'' It hopes that the United States, by actively returning to Southeast Asia, would give it breathing room. But US, West European, and Southeast Asian sources doubt that the US will forget the Vietnamese experience and fall for Hanoi's courting. The US is unlikely to risk its good relations with Southeast Asian nations and China by getting involved in Indochina, they say.

Vietnam has gone on the offensive in recent weeks. It has launched simultaneously a military assault and a peace initiative. Toward the Khmer resistance in Kampuchea (Cambodia), it is extending its claws. Toward the US, it purrs.

``Vietnam is looking for a way out,'' says one Asian ambassador. ``It feels isolated. It feels trapped. The war effort imposes a heavy burden on its economy. It fears China. Soviet help is lagging. It hopes that the present deadlock could be broken if the US agreed to again play an active role in the area.''

Diplomats here from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- including some, such as Indonesia, who are not ill-disposed toward Vietnam -- are skeptical about Hanoi's recent overtures. ASEAN includes Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brunei.

``They are cosmetics. No shift in Vietnam's basic position has occurred,'' one ASEAN representative claims.

Vietnam has dealt a heavy blow to the noncommunist Khmer People's National Liberation Front, led by former Cambodian Prime Minister Son Sann, by overrunning its camps last month. It is now attacking the communist Khmer Rouge camps.

Meanwhile, it has suggested to United Nations Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, who visited Hanoi in late January, that it has adopted a more flexible position about its occupation of Kampuchea and that it wants to normalize its relations with the US.

Vietnam's permanent representative to the United Nations, Hoang Bich Son, told the Monitor that ``the US would find Vietnam forthcoming if it [the US] decided to play a constructive role in Southeast Asia. Vietnam would show flexibility with regard to the search for US servicemen missing in action [MIA] and the release of political prisoners from reeducation camps.''

But, when pressed for concrete examples of what concessions Vietnam would make, he was evasive. He argued that Vietnam had already handed over 100 sets of MIA remains and had made strenuous efforts to get these results and ``to show good will.''

Hoang Bich Son made three points:

Vietnam favors the convening of an international conference to deal with the situation in Southeast Asia -- a conference that would include all the interested parties and some others such as Sweden, India, and Australia.

Vietnam favors a process of national reconciliation in Kampuchea. This means that the Heng Samrin government is ready to talk to Prince Norodom Sihanouk and to Son Sann and perhaps to let them play a role in a future government -- but not the Khmer Rouge.

The Heng Samrin regime is becoming stronger, more self-reliant, and more capable of dealing by itself with the guerrilla movement, he claims. He says that in a few years Vietnam will be able to withdraw all of its troops from Kampuchea. There will be nothing left to negotiate.

Western sources dispute these points. They claim that Vietnam, ever conscious of its security to the north (China) and the southwest (Kampuchea), is not about to let rebel Khmers share power in Kampuchea. Furthermore, they say ASEAN would not let the Khmer resistance be decimated.

One ASEAN ambassador claims that Vietnam's latest peace offensive aims only at driving wedges between its various adversaries: between Sihanouk and Son Sann on the one hand and the Khmer Rouge on the other; between Thailand, which feels threatened by Vietnamese forces at its borders, and Indonesia, which fears China more than Vietnam; between China and ASEAN, by playing upon ASEAN dislike of the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge; and, finally, between China and the US.

``By cuddling up to the US,'' the ASEAN diplomat says, ``Vietnam hopes to make China suspicious of US intentions in the area. Furthermore, the international conference proposed by Vietnam would serve essentially to legitimize the Heng Samrin regime and Kampuchea's status as a Vietnamese protectorate.''

One well-placed Chinese source says that ``Vietnam wants to engage us in negotiations so that our hands would be tied. Hanoi would be free to attack the Khmer resistance and would not have to fear a retaliatory strike from us.''

This official believes Vietnam is worried about a Sino-Soviet thaw. ``Vietnam feels that it is a pawn of the Soviet Union in the global chess game and could be sold out when Moscow finds it convenient.''

Vietmam was extremely worried about the visit of Gen. John Vessey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, to China last month, the diplomat says. US military cooperation with China might complete Vietnam's encirclement.

There is little likelihood that the US will change its policy about Southeast Asia in exchange for Vietnamese flexibility on bilateral issues such as the MIAs and the fate of the political prisoners, according to one US diplomat. ``Normalization will not occur before Vietnamese troops withdraw from Kampuchea, but Vietnamese cooperation on humanitarian issues would help improve the climate between our two countries,'' he says.

Says a Western diplomat: ``None of the parties involved directly or indirectly in the Cambodian war has compelling reasons to change its attitude.

``Neither China nor Vietnam,'' the diplomat continues, ``are ready to settle for less than total control of Kampuchea. Both believe that a compromise solution, such as a neutral, independent Cambodia, would not work.''

``Vietnam is disappointed with its relationship with the Soviet Union,'' one communist diplomat says in private. ``It feels cornered and doomed to stagnation.''

As ASEAN countries and Pacific Rim countries prosper, Vietnam's economy remains weak, vulnerable to food shortages.

``Basically, Vietnam would like the US to come to its rescue politically and economically, without asking it to pay the price [withdrawal from Kampuchea] for it,'' one analyst says.

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