War clouds over Southeast Asia begin to lift -- slightly

The growing clouds of war that once hung over Laos and China show signs of clearing. The change is the latest hint that the danger of war between China and Vietnam is abating.

Official statements and private comments by Chinese, Lao, and Vietnamese sources indicate the following:

1. Vietnamese-aligned Lao leaders no longer expect China to either invade northern Laos or foment rebellion there. A high-ranking Lao leader has made it clear privately that Laos does not face a serious Chinese threat. In a major policy speech in December Lao Premier Kaysome Phomvihan omitted the usual reference to a specific Chinese threat to Laos.

Previously Lao leaders have talked of the danger that China might attack Laos to get at Vietnam -- either through direct attack, support for tribal minorities , or support for anticommunist rebels.

2. Lao-Chinese relations now are friendly. Relations are "just as they have always been," a Chinese source in Vientiane says. Diplomats here say the tone of this description contrasts sharply with the same source's previous statements. The source has sometimes described the Lao government as oppressive and abhorrent.

3. A Chinese strike at Vietnam through Laos is no longer a likely Chinese action. Much more likely, a Vietnamese source here says, is some kind of Chinese naval and air attack near the Haiphong region. But even this action is now seen by Vietnam's leaders are remote.

It is not clear just what is behind the improved Chinese-Lao relations. But they appear to reflect a general cooling of tensions within Indo-China and specifically between China and Vietnam.

Chinese-Lao friction flared after China's Early 1979 attack on Vietnam following Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia.

After that, Laos gradually moved closer to Vietnam. Official Lao statements began to criticize China. And Chinese road-building teams in norhtern Laos went home after being asked to leave.

There were unconfirmed reports that China began helping some rebellious Hmong hill tribes. Lao officials said Lao refugees that China accepted for resettlement from Thai refugee camps were actually going to China for guerrilla training.

But Laos never adopted as stiff an antiChinese policy as did Vietnam. In one Lao town a Chinese bookstore selling Chinese propaganda has remained open.

Lao officials told one reporter that when border disputes arise, Lao soldiers refrain form firing on the Chinese. Chinese commanders are invited over to discuss the problem over tea instead. All this contrasts strongly with the Vietnamese approach.

From the beginning Laos appears to have been more careful than Vietnam to leave open some options for mending relations with China.

There is an improved situation on the Thai- Cambodian border and a declining level of tension between China and Vietnam.

Still, the buildup of Vietnamese forces in western Cambodia causes anxiety among some Thai military officers because of the unpredictable possibility that they might cross over into Thailand.

Many analysts conclude, however, that it is extremely unlikely that a major Vietnamese offensive in western Cambodia might "spill over" into Thailand in "hot pursuit" of Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Chinese sources say that in the absence of a major spillover, a "second lesson" on Vietnam is unlikely.

Much of the continuing talk of war between Thailand and Vietnam is not so much because of a serious belief this will occur -- but to make extra sure the Vietnamese don't miscalculate.

Behind the Vietnamese caution appears to be a desirable to avoid war with Thailand and another Chinese attack from the north. Some analysts suggest the Soviet Union, preoccupied in Afghanistan, may be urging caution.

Whatever the reason, Laos with its 3 million people is now a little more confident that it will be spared the ravages of war.

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