Washington — Ten years after the fall of Saigon, the United States is once again debating whether and how to take up the fight against Vietnamese expansion in Southeast Asia. At issue is a congressional plan to provide $5 million to assist noncommunist resistance forces in Kampuchea (Cambodia), which have been battling the occupying armies of Vietnam since late 1978.
The proposal is sponsored by Rep. Steven J. Solarz (D) of New York, who is chairman of the Asian and Pacific affairs subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Under his plan, the aid would be channeled through Thailand ``in whatever ways the Thai government thinks would be most appropriate'' to assist the Kampuchean resistance. Although technically not a military aid package, the funds could be used for arms purchases, Solarz aides say. They say the aid program is designed to do for the Kampuchean guerrillas what US covert aid does to support Afghanistan ``freedom fighters'' in their war against Soviet occupation forces.
Vietnam invaded Kampuchea in December 1978 and ousted the Communist Khmer Rouge government headed by Pol Pot in January 1979. Since then, opposition to Vietnamese forces has been spearheaded by the Khmer Rouge, together with two noncommunist groups, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front, led by former Prime Minister Son Sann, and the faction led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, leader of Cambodia through the 1950s and '60s. Reflecting deep resentments over atrocities committed by the Pol Pot government during its four-year rule, the three groups maintain separate armies.
During the last four months, resistance forces have been driven out of bases along the Thai border. But US State Department sources say substantial remnants of the opposition are still operating inside Kampuchea.
Mr. Solarz says the Kampuchean aid package has two objectives. The first is to help resistance forces drive the Vietnamese from Kampuchea; the second is to help prevent the Khmer Rouge from regaining control when the occupation forces are ousted. New aid to noncommunist factions, says Solarz, will help secure a political settlement favorable to the US interests in the region. A Solarz aide says the proposed aid would not be used to support the Khmer Rouge forces ``in any way, shape, or form.''
Sources here say Solarz's sponsorship of the Kampuchean aid proposal stems from a longstanding personal interest in the region that has been reinforced by lobbying of the six countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
One spokesman for ASEAN, Ambassador Tommy T. B. Koh of Singapore, says he believes the subcommittee action was ``responsive'' to a recent ASEAN appeal for increased military and economic support to the region. Mr. Koh says aid from the US would be helpful in both practical and symbolic terms. ``It would be a tremendous morale booster'' for Kampucheans, ``who are unable to understand why American words have not been matched by American deeds.'' It would be a ``signal,'' says Koh, ``that the US is once again prepared to play an active, but subsidiary, role in the region.''
So far, the Solarz proposal has been greeted with opposition from liberals and skepticism from the Reagan administration. Liberal critics say they are sympathetic to the goals of the noncommunist resistance, but that they are concerned about the implications of even a small commitment in Kampuchea. New aid, says Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa, risks duplicating the ``liberal error'' of Vietnam and Cuba's Bay of Pigs. Congressional liberals are also concerned about setting a precedent that would strengthen the administration's case in the coming contest over aid to Nicaraguan rebels. Supporters of the Solarz plan say that unlike the Nicaraguan contras, the Kampuchean guerrillas are waging a war to liberate their country from a foreign occupation army.
The Reagan administration has adopted a wait-and-see attitude. In a speech last month, Secretary of State George Shultz said the US should support freedom fighters around the world, adding that ``young Cambodians'' should ``not have to learn to live with oppression.'' But, stung by a recent congressional cutoff of aid to Nicaraguan contras, the administration is wary of providing direct assistance without some indication that there will be support in Congress over the long term. Administration officials are also known to be concerned that US involvement could alter the nature of what is now essentially a proxy war between the USSR, Vietnam's chief patron, and China, Kampuchea's chief patron.
Although now opposed to direct military assistance, State Department officials say they are ``looking at the question'' of a humanitarian aid package, which they say will develop skills that noncommunist factions will need in rebuilding Kampuchea once a settlement is reached. While the aid package has majority support in the subcommittee, congressional sources say it's too early to predict votes in the full House and Senate.
Nearly everyone agrees that the biggest obstacle supporters of the new aid package will face is the memory of the US experience in Southeast Asia a decade ago. ``Precisely because of the American experience in Vietnam, it is inconceivable that aid could lead to the reintroduction of US combat forces in Indochina,'' says a Solarz aide.
The immediate ASEAN response to the two aid proposals seems to be pleasure at the Solarz suggestion and impatience at the State Department's approach. ``Solarz is closer to our viewpoint on this,'' says one ASEAN diplomat in Bangkok. ``We'd welcome Reagan's support for his proposal.''
What ASEAN seems most interested in is the symbolic impact of a US decision to provide aid. For several years now they have been urging the US to snap out of its Vietnam syndrome and become actively involved in the problems of the region.
The diplomat is less enthusiastic about the administration's proposal. ``If you want to help the guerrillas, you have got to go all the way, not stop at training. . . . Their [the US Embassy's] idea is to train people for the day when they return to Kampuchea and need to have the expertise to administer a government.
``Solarz has a different idea. He calls it economic aid, but he obviously has in mind something similar to US aid for the Afghan guerrillas.''
Vietnam may unwittingly have helped the Solarz proposal along. Last year the congressman visited Hanoi. The visit was fruitless: The Vietnamese were as hard line as ever. This is said to have disappointed Solarz, who had reportedly been led to expect a more open Vietnamese approach to solving the Kampuchean problem.
Finding money for the two noncommunist factions of the coalition is not a difficult operation. The Chinese already provide the bulk of the weaponry and munitions needed by the guerrillas. Singapore has also provided military hardware; Malaysia and Thailand train guerrillas. And the US almost certainly provides several million dollars annually in covert assistance.
Some US diplomats argue that greater US involvement in Kampuchea could be harmful. It would further internationalize a conflict in which two major powers, China and the Soviet Union, are already involved. And, some observers note, US support for an Indochinese ally has never guaranteed that ally's victory.