BEIJING — CHINA has expressed a new willingness to open contacts with the Vietnamese-installed Phnom Penh regime in what diplomats are calling a major step toward securing peace in Cambodia. A Foreign Ministry statement in the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily Sept. 12 says that Beijing ``is ready to establish and keep contacts with all the parties in the Supreme National Council,'' a body created Sept. 10 by the four Cambodian factions.
As a firm supporter of the Khmer Rouge faction, China had refused to meet with the Vietnamese-backed Hun Sen regime. China's announcement should smooth efforts to reconcile the Khmer Rouge with the Hun Sen government and bolster prospects for a negotiated settlement, Western diplomats say.
``This is another sign that old enemies involved in the Cambodia civil war are more likely to sit down and talk over their differences rather than fight over them,'' a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
The announcement also helps to clear the way toward the eventual normalization of relations between China and Vietnam, diplomats say. Beijing says it will not normalize ties with Hanoi until there is a complete settlement of the Cambodian question.
The four Cambodia factions empowered the council to serve as the supreme authority during the transition to an elected government, and to represent Cambodia in the United Nations. The factions also accepted a UN plan under which the UN will supervise the transition.
China has provided military backing worth $100 million annually to the Khmer Rouge since that faction was ousted by the Vietnamese in 1979.
Ironically, China's announcement, displayed on the front page of the party newspaper, is seen by some diplomats as a move to shore up Hun Sen's position at home. ``Hun Sen's rivals within his government have grown stronger ... and China probably fears that the possible successors to Hun Sen would be much closer to the Vietnamese,'' a Western diplomat says.
The council ``is composed of representatives who enjoy authority among the Cambodian people and will be able to reflect the opinions of different parties,'' says a People's Daily commentary.
The Hun Sen government will hold six seats on the 12-member Supreme National Council, including Hun Sen and five members of his government. The Khmer Rouge and two other factions will each hold two seats.
China suggested that Prince Norodom Sihanouk be elected the Council's chairman, a move seen as an effort to guarantee its influence on the body. Beijing has said it will stop providing arms to the Khmer Rouge when other countries end assistance to various factions, and the UN determines that Vietnam has completely withdrawn.