US-ASEAN-China stance against Vietnam shows signs of strain

For all practical purposes -- at least for the rest of this year -- the United States and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines) will continue to present a united front against Vietnam.

But, according to high-ranking ASEAN diplomats, behind this facade of unity, cracks and divisions have begun to appear. A flurry of diplomatic activity in the region and numerous statements that have been issued have not helped to clarify the situation.

Richard C. Holbrooke, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, visited the ASEAN capitals in February. Thailand's new Prime Minister, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, visited Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The leaders of Malaysia and of Indonesia met in March in Kuantan, Malaysia, and Vietnam's Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thack visited Malaysia and Thailand very recently.

Differences in tone and emphasis of the many speeches delivered by the visitors have been at times overinterpreted. The US has been reported to have encouraged Malaysia to seek accommodation with Hanoi. The new Thai premier has been described as being "softer" on Vietnam than his predecessor.

Malaysia and Indonesia are said to be ready to settle for less than would Thailand and Singapore, with regard to Cambodia: that Vietnam simply guarantee Thailand's territorial integrity without withdrawing its forces from Cambodia.

These reports, according to high-ranking and well-placed diplomats at the United Nations, are erroneous.

But among the members of the "triple alliance" (China-US-ASEAN), there are differences in perceptions and in long-range objectives:

* China not only supports the Khmer Rouge but also hopes ultimately to restore them to power. It seeks to bring Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to heel.

* The United States is not really sure of what its long-range objectives in Indochina are, but it certainly does not hold out for the return to power of Ieng Sary, Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan.

The US is playing the "Chinese card," but it may someday resume its dialogue with Moscow. For similar reasons, it may find it desirable to help Vietnam consolidate its independence from both Moscow and Peking. It seeks to neutralize Vietnam, not subjugate it.

While Singapore and Thailand are more directly concerned with Vietnam's expansionism, Malaysia and Indonesia -- partly as a result of their ethnic composition -- are more fearful of China's threat to the region than of Vietnam's. They are reported to feel that the present Thai diplomatic stance toward Vietnam has frozen the Cambodian situation and is leading nowhere.

They believe ASEAN should hold out a carrot to Hanoi while carrying a big stick. For instance, they say the ASEAN countries should make it clear to Hanoi that they would not accept a pro-Chinese Cambodia any more than they do a Vietnamese-controlled Cambodia.

Some high-ranking US officials privately doubt the wisdom of US policy remaining glued to China's diplomacy in the region and remaining forever stringently anti-Vietnamese. "In fact, it is far from certain that the long-term interests of China and of the United States in Asia coincide," says one well-placed ambassador who follows East Asian affairs.

These differences may be academic, but they tend to feed mutual suspicions and have led to misrepresentation and rumors.

In any event, Vietnam's intransigent stance with regard to Cambodia leaves the ASEAN countries, China, and the US with little room for diplomatic maneuvering.

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