Chinese, Vietnamese Ease Tensions Along Border

Economic need and flourishing trade draw together two former enemies, but flare-ups in Cambodia and historic distrust test this new pragmatism

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HOANG CONG HOAN boasts that this Vietnamese frontier entrepot, overrun by Chinese troops 13 years ago, is now flooded with Chinese businessmen and goods.

"There is unanimity among the people to let bygones be bygones," says the businessman and communist official, describing the new mood and booming trade at the border where China and Vietnam fought in 1979.

Driven by the crumbling of world communism and the Soviet Union, Vietnam and China are patching up one of Asia's most bitter feuds.

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Last November, the two neighbors normalized relations more than a decade after falling out over Hanoi's invasion of Cambodia, the forced exodus of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, and Hanoi's tilt toward Moscow.

Yet, even as the Marxist soulmates close ranks, historic distrust and fears of Chinese dominance block a return to the good old days when the two were comrades-in-arms against the United States, Vietnamese and Western analysts say.

"In the future, there will not be the kind of relationship between the two countries as in the past when it was characterized as 'teeth and lips says military affairs specialist Do Van Ninh, referring to a Vietnam-War analogy: China is the teeth, Vietnam is the lips. "After the events in 1979, every Vietnamese has a more vigilant attitude toward China, but still thinks it's beneficial to have good relations."

Already, that new pragmatism is being put to the test.

In Cambodia, where the two countries' rapprochement spawned a peace accord last year, new outbursts of heavy fighting between the Khmer Rouge, once backed by China, and the Phnom Penh government, installed by Vietnam, endanger the settlement.

Relations also remain charged over the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands, the trigger in a 1988 naval clash between the two countries and reportedly rich in oil and natural gas.

Vietnam, fearing the economic clout of ethnic Chinese, has yet to accept the return of tens of thousands of refugees forced across the border in the 1970s.

"China and Vietnam are trapped because there aren't too many other communists they can deal with," says a Western analyst in Hanoi. "But they're both finding normalization difficult because of years and years of suspicion."

What is cementing the revived friendship is economic need, flourishing trade, and Hanoi's admiration for Beijing's fusion of socialist planning and free-market reforms.

In Lang Son Province, devastated in fierce hand-to-hand combat between Vietnamese and Chinese troops in the brief but bloody 1979 conflict, legal trade more than doubled last year from $15 million in goods crossing the border in 1990, says Mr. Hoan.

At the heavily fortified frontier, rampant smuggling, conducted on the shoulders of porters snaking over muddy and precarious mountain passes, overshadows legitimate commerce. There are few formalities except "taxes" that enrich officials on both sides of the border.

Nearby markets are full of Chinese medicines, textiles, cassette players, and other contraband exchanged for chickens, rattan, pilfered copper wire, and baskets of snakes and frogs used for aphrodisiacs. The latest in khaki military surplus from China has become chic in Vietnam.

Despite continuing border disputes, Hoan, whose family also owns a trading company, says Lang Son officials recently agreed to speed up commerce with the neighboring Chinese Guanxi autonomous region.

"If you had come here a few years ago, you would have seen the ruins of war," he says. "Now, with the border open, it's a bonanza and people are thriving."

With border trade in full swing, China is now challenging two other Chinese enclaves, Taiwan and Singapore, as Vietnam's main trading partners. But compared to the past when economic exchanges were based on a socialist alliance, today it's strictly business.

For example, when war erupted, Vietnamese observers say, China withdrew technical experts from a fertilizer factory it built in Bac Giang. Today, they're back but only as specialists overseeing China's investment in the factory, which is now a joint venture.

Yet, with the lessons of 1989 still vivid, Vietnamese say, even business deserves wariness. At the Lang Son border crossing known as Friendship Pass, the two countries wrangle over reconnecting the rail link broken in 1979. Says one Vietnamese official, "We have a saying that the Chinese will betray their distant relatives. But they will buy their close neighbors."

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