MANILA — DIPLOMATS are carefully eyeing Cambodia this month for claims of triumphs or defeats on the battlefield. The Cambodia war has entered a crucial phase, starting with last month's apparent withdrawal of Vietnam's troops, leading up to a vote on who can claim the Cambodian seat at the United Nations.
``Neither side is very serious about diplomacy until they flex their military muscles,'' says one Western diplomat watching events closely.
The vote in the UN General Assembly, expected in coming weeks, will be influenced in part by what happens on the battlefield between the pro-Vietnamese, pro-Soviet regime and an alliance of three guerrilla factions.
Both sides also need diplomatic legitimacy to bolster their military stance.
Since 1982 the UN has granted the Cambodia seat to the anti-Vietnamese guerrilla coalition lead by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The strongest guerrilla faction is the communist Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians when it ruled the country between 1975 and 1979.
If the Khmer Rouge takes over a key town or two and threatens to retake power, some diplomats say the UN may deny the seat to the coalition, either keeping the seat vacant or granting it to the pro-Hanoi regime led by Hun Sen.
Hun Sen has tried to break his regime's diplomatic isolation (the only noncommunist embassy in the capital of Phnom Penh is India's) in hopes that such a change will help end military support for the guerrillas by China, the United States, and others.
Hun Sen says that his army, estimated to be about 60,000 strong with a militia of 100,000 more troops, can keep the guerrillas from taking any territory.
China and the Soviet Union beefed up military supplies to both sides in recent months, diplomats say, in anticipation of the announced Sept. 26 final withdrawal of Vietnamese troops.
In Thailand, where the three anti-Hanoi guerrilla factions are based, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that some of Vietnam's troops remain in Cambodia. It promised to display five captured Vietnamese to the press. But as of yesterday, the alleged soldiers had not been shown. The Thai Foreign Ministry later denied it had any Vietnamese prisoners.
The Vietnamese occupation has been the main excuse used by a large majority of UN members to grant the Cambodia seat to Prince Sihanouk's coalition since 1982. Both China and the US, along with many allies, are trying to retain the UN seat for Sihanouk as a symbol of world distrust of Vietnam and its allied regime in Cambodia.
``We plan to steadfastly maintain our support for the diplomatic and economic isolation of Vietnam,'' David Lambertson, US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told Congress this week.
The US, which wants Hanoi to allow Sihanouk to lead a power-sharing coalition in Cambodia, reportedly stopped the International Monetary Fund last month from granting a $300 million loan to Vietnam.
Vietnam refused to let the UN verify its pullout on the grounds that the UN does not recognize the Hun Sen regime. But Hun Sen, just before the final pullout, suggested that the UN team might allowed in.
Unverified claims of military victories are now being made by each side, with little independent confirmation.
The Khmer Rouge claims to have besieged the western Cambodian town of Pailin, while the weaker Khmer People's National Liberation Front, one of two noncommunist factions in the tripartite coalition, claims advances in the northwest.
A fresh round of talks between the factions is being offered by Thailand. The last round, in August, collapsed without agreement.
Now all sides are gearing up for at least a few weeks of armed combat, in preparation for the next diplomatic showdown.