Will Southeast Asia become a crucial confrontation point between the Soviet Union and the United States? This week's opening dialogue between Thailand and Vietnam will partly answer that question. The visit of Vietnam's Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach to Bangkok will give some clues.
For any even partial accomodation between American- backed Thailand and Soviet-backed Vietnam would lessen the danger of a new Southeast Asian war. It could also open the way for stability and economic progress in Southeast Asia.
A continuing deadlock, however, could escalate into border war or stepped up Vietnamese-backed communist insurgency in Thailand. Another consequence: a new wave of hungry refugees streaming into Thailand, possibly in August. This would not only destabilize Thailand's politics and economy. It would also threaten all other noncommunist Southeast Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
According to Western, Thai, and other Asian sources only the passage of time -- a month to a year -- will tell if the dialogue proved a success.
These sources mostly agree that public statements by both Thai and Vietnamese sides give little indication on whether the talks between Mr. Thach, Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila, and Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda bore fruit.
Despite the secrecy still surrounding the talks, one once- skeptical Asian diplomat sees signs of limited progress. "I am more optimistic now than I was a week ago," he told this correspondent. "But to really know will take six months to a year."
One key question is just what concession Thailand would be willing to make.
Vietnam wants the Thai Army to stop helping the Khmer Rouge, which the Thais deny is in fact happening. But even if Vietnam's charges are true, many observers believe private Thai merchants bankrolled by China could continue to supply the Khmer Rouge across the porous border even without the Thai government's help.
One theory is that the Khmer Rouge are now so well supplied that a tightening of Thai supply lines would not hurt them. According to this reasoning, the Thais could thus afford to please Vietmam with some kind of crackdown without excessively displeasing Thailand's ally China.
But so far there is no public indication of what Thai officials told China's foreign Minister, Huang Hua, when he visited Bangkok a week before his Vietnamese couterpart.
So far now an element of mystery remains. "Don't meddle in Cambodian affairs ," was one warning Ngueyen co Thach gave the press after meeting with Thai officials. But he added, "Our talks this time are not like a conversation between the deaf, but like talks between bride and bridegroom."
According to a ranking Thai source, the question as to whether Vietnam is prepared to make concessions could include one or more of these critical indications:
* Restricted military operations against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (Kampuchea) near the Thai border.
* Increased readiness to allow international relief into Kampuchea.
* Willingness to cooperate with international relief agencies on the refugee situation.
* Vietnamese willingness to broaden the base of the Vietnam-backed Heng Samrin government.
As of now the signs are unclear. There has been no major Vietnamese military action near the Thai border for months. In fact, Vietnam has withdrawn its forces eight kilometers from the northern section of the border, one analyst notes. A question is whether Vietnam will continue its restraints in the south, a major Khmer Rouge stronghold, if the China-backed Khmer Rouge step up action as some expect during the coming wet season.
Publicly, Vietnam has shown signs widely interpreted as stubborness. This week it announced it will not participate in the May 26-27 United Nations Geneva conference on Cambodian aid.
Vietnam has refused to withdraw its troops from Cambodia until, as it sees it , the Chinese threat ends. Vietnam has still given no clear indication that it will broaden the Heng Samrin government, although it says elections there will eventually be held.
Privately Vietnamese officials tell reporters Vietnam will reduce military operations near Thailand in return for a Thai crackdown on Chinese supplies passing through Thailand to the Khmer Rouge. "But why do they not offer this publicly?" one Thai source complains.