A diplomatic boxing match has begun as rivals China and Vietnam step up their efforts to lure noncommunist Southeast Asian nations to their side. The diplomatic battle has begun with the visit to the Philippines by Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua.
After consultations in Manila beginning March 13, the Chinese Foreign Minister moves on to Malaysia March 15 and to Singapore March 18.
Behind the visit is China's effort to bend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines -- even more sharply against Vietnam and the Soviet Union. China is considered disappointed by last week's joint ASEAN-European Community (EC) foreign ministers' statement calling for neutrality and political solutions in both Afghanistan and Cambodia. China wants a more vigorous condemnation of both the Soviet Union and Vietnam.
Meanwhile Vietnam is seeking to prevent ASEAN as a whole from adopting the relatively anti-Vietnam position voiced most strongly by Singapore.
One step in this direction is the proposed trip by Vietnam's Foreign Minister , Nguyen Co Thach, to Malaysia and perhaps Thailand. No firm date has been announced.But that trip, nominally in return for the recent visit to Hanoi by Malaysia's Foreign Minister, is expected for late March or early April.
Of all the ASEAN states, Malaysia places the greatest stress on neutrality and keeping an open door for Vietnam. Malaysian sources have told journalists in Kuala Lumpur that Malaysia will resist any Chinese pressure to line up on China's side against Vietnam.
Indeed, Malaysia has taken on itself the task of exploring any possibilities for improved relations between Vietnam and ASEAN. These relations have seriously deteriorated since last year's invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam. Some ASEAN governments were especially angered because Vietnam's diplomats had assured them months before the invasion that no such military action would happen.
The Malaysian visit by the Vietnamese Foreign Minister will be closely watched for any sign Vietnam is willing to reciprocate with an "olive branch" for ASEAN. The same will be true if the Foreign Minister visits Thailand. Friction over refugees and Vietnamese military operations inside Cambodia near the Thai border had made Thai-Vietnamese relations extremely delicate.
China's Huang Hua began the Philippine leg of his journey with a sharp blast at the Soviet Union for threatening the peace of the region.
According to a Filipino spokesman, talks between Huang Hua and Philippines Foreign Minister Carlos Romulo showed a close approximation of views on regional and economic issues, with the Philippines calling for the withdrawal of Vietnam from Cambodia and the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.