Are the Viets signaling flexibility on Cambodia?

The first stage of Vietnam's effort to end its status as an "outcast" among Southeast Asia's noncommunist nations has publicly ended in deadlock. But the critical, still-unanswered question is whether any secret, behind-the-scenes room for future negotiation emerged from Vietnam Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach's weekend visit to Malaysia. His Malaysian trip is regarded by diplomats here as the possibly decisive step in a two-stop diplomatic initiative, the second part of which takes him to Thailand May 17 to 20.

This is because Mr. Thach was expected to give the Malaysians a definitive public and private briefing on what, if anything, Vietnam is prepared to offer concerning such issues as Cambodia and the Cambodian border with Thailand.

Thailand's Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila was then to leave for consultations with Malaysia's Foreign Minister Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen Sunday to learn indirectly about Vietnam's position. unless the Malaysians can show there is any "give" on Vietnam's side, Mr. Thach's later visit to Thailand may be pointless. The Thais could even withdraw their invitation to Mr. Thach, notes one Southeast Asian diplomat.

On the surface there was no sign of Vietnamese "give." T"We have not changed our position that the situation in Kampuchea [Cambodia] is irreversible because there is no change in the situation there," the Vietnamese foreign minister told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He again rejected a United Nations resolution sponsored by the five-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) calling for withdrawal of Vietnamese troops and a political settlement in Cambodia.

He indirectly rejected the idea of an international conference to set up a Cambodian coalition government, saying the Hanoi-backed Heng Samrin administration would adopt a new constitution and hold general elections soon.

As earlier, he did not rule out the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops. But he said they could only be withdrawn when China's threat to Indochina ended. Vietnam maintains the troops are needed to fight the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 until the Vietnamese invaded in December 1978.

Mr. Thach did, however, sound a note of possible flexibility by suggesting that insoluble issues could be put to one side and discussions on a zone of peace begun. he noted that in the past ASEAN has rejected hanoi's concept of "a zone of peace and prosperity." But it remains to be seen whether Mr. Thach's suggestions will open the way for discussions in Thailand aimed at reducing Thai-Vietnamese friction over the Cambodian border.

Thailand has been seeking reduction of Vietnamese military operations near the border which might drive hundreds of thousands of Cambodians into their country. Vietnam wants a Thai crackdown on the transit of Chinese arms and supplies to the Khmer Rouge.

A source close to Vietnamese thinking says Vietnam would be interested in a Thai weapons crackdown in exchange for reduced military action near the border.

But skeptics point out that Thailand denies allowing Chinese weapons traffic -- even in private diplomatic conversations with other ASEAN members. This makes any formal or informal Thai-Vietnamese commitment difficult, observers point out.

For its part, Vietnam is extremely unlikely to commit itself to reduced military activity, diplomats note. Vietnam would like to retain its freedom of action.

A Thai clampdown on Chinese weapons flow would also harm Thai-Chinese relations. These have grown extremely important, both economically (Chinese oil to Thailand) and militarily (the prospect of a Chinese attack on Vietnam if Vietnam attacks Thailand).

The Thai-China link was emphasized last week by Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua's four-day visit to Thailand. Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda said he accepted an invitation to visit China at an undetermined date. There were further negotiations on a still unsigned commercial air link agreement.

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