Soviet entrapment in the "swamp" of Afghanistan may give China new freedom to attack Vietnam. This point of view is expressed by a well-connected Chinese intelligence source here. Soviet involvement in the "Vietnam" of Afghanistan, he told the Monitor, will make it easier for China to lay military "traps" for Vietnam if Hanoi presses too hard to destroy the China-backed Khmer Rouge in western Cambodia.
The Chinese informat accurately predicted to this correspondent last year's China-Vietnam war three months in advance. His latest comments suggest a new sense of Chinese confidence, and even belligerence, compared with his mild tone before the Afghanistan invasion.
"We are not scared of the Soviet Army," he now says. "Sometimes it is good to fight a superpower.
Some analysts here warn that these disclosures of apparent Chinese thinking must be treated with caution because they may be a deliberate "plant" designed to scare Vietnam.
Vietnamese officials are known to scan the Western press carefully with a deep-seated and perhaps excessive belief that it contains real clues as to what other governments will do."The Christian Science Monitor is an influential newspaper," the Chinese intelligence source said with a smile. Vietnamese officials are known to read and quote from the Monitor.
But other experts say the informant's comments should be taken seriously as a possible clue to current Chinese thinking. One such analyst notes that even if the comments are a "plant" to scare Vietnam (and even though they differ from what Chinese diplomats are telling Western diplomats officially), they could also be an accurate indication of the current Chinese attitude.
One significant new ingredient in the intelligence source's comments is his indication that China may see the elimination of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas as sufficient provocation by itself for an attack on Vietnam. Previously it has widely been assumed that China would attack only if Vietnam's forces crossed into Thailand.
Vietnam is not expected to be able to eliminate the Khmer Rouge guerrillas this year. Even so, some analysts believe China wants Vietnam to restrain its campaign against the guerrillas and perhaps even withdraw some forces from western Cambodia. A newspaper "plant" could be one tiny ingredient in an effort to persuade Vietnam to act with caution.
There are conflicting indications as to whether China is stepping up war preparations. One qualified analyst strongly doubts that China is doing so, noting that in the past few weeks the emphasis has been on the economy and other domestic matters. On the other hand, new military commanders recently have been appointed in several of China's strategically vital border regions, including the border with Vietnam, a development that may of may not be related to war preparations. A new Navy commander also has been appointed.
A critical question is what the effect of Afghanistan has been on Vietnam itself. Some Western and Chinese sources think the strong American reaction to Afghanistan has caused Vietnam to think twice, lest an attack spilling into Thailand bring American retaliation. There also has been speculation that the Soviets have urged Vietnam to be cautious, since Moscow cannot afford to be involved in two fronts at once.
But a Vietnamese source in Vientiane, Laos, recently insisted to this correspondent that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a welcome development because it shows Moscow backs its allies.
One Western source suggests that a study by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies shows that the Soviet Union is militarily strained all along its borders from Eastern Europe to China. Knowing this, China could feel freer to retaliate against Vietnam, he says.
But at least one source very close to Chinese thinking still believes the Soviet Union is sufficiently powerful to be formidable in both Afghanistan and Vietnam. "I have no doubt they can fight on two fronts," he said.