Divisions within noncommunist Souteast Asia may have deepened over how to deal with Vietnam. This could be the result of a recent visit to Malaysia by Vietnam's foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach.
One implication of the visit may be a sharper dispute between Malaysia (which favors an "open door" to Vietnam) and Thailand (which stresses a tougher stand aimed at weakening Vietnam's hold on Cambodia).
Following Mr. Thach's trip, Malaysia's Prime Minister Datuk Hussein bin Onn surprised many diplomats by declaring in Singapore that there have been changes in the positions of both Thailand and Vietnam that could give hope for an eventual political solution in Cambodia (Kampuchea).
He suggested that as long as Vietnam would guarantee the territorial integrity of Thailand, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN) would be satisfied. Previously, ASEAN (Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, and Singpore) had insisted withdrawal of Vietnam's forces from Cambodia was a precondition for a political solution.
Asked whether ASEAN was abandoning this precondition, Prime Minister Hussein said the security of Thailand was "paramount."
The Malaysian statement was quikly rejected by Thailand's foreign minister, Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila. "Our policy . . . remains unchanged," he declared, suggesting that Mr. Hussein's comments were meant to pave the way for Foreign Minister Thach's visit to Thailand this coming weekend.
But the Thai foreign minister was privately dismayed at the Malaysian prime minister's comments, according to one diplomatic source. Even earlier, other ASEAN diplomats said the Thai position is unchanged.
If indeed Mr. Hussein's statement distorted the Thai position, discord within ASEAN could be increased. Skeptics all along have maintained that Mr. Thach's diplomatic travels might be aimed at dividing ASEAN by exploiting differences within the unit.
And if the Thai-Malaysian friction over Prime Minister Hussein's statement is serious this could suggest a weakness in the elaborate system of high-level ASEAN consultation designed to precede Mr. Thach's Thailand visit.
It appears that Mr. Hussein's comments were designed to encourage the kind of limited Thai-Vietnam deal that has long been speculated upon. This would put the broader question of Cambodia's status aside, even though ASEAN would continue to call for Viet troop withdrawal from Cambodia.
Instead, Vietnam would give some sort of undertaking to limit military operations near Thailand's borders. Thailand, in turn, would clamp down on Chinese aid passing through its borders to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
But whether the Thais are willing to consider such an approach -- and are simply angered by Prime Minister Hussein's public statements -- remains to be seen.