Thai-Viet fighting opens Asian rifts

Outbreak of fighting between Thai and Vietnamese forces on the Thai-Cambodian border underscores how wide and dangerous the gap remains between Vietnam and the noncommunist nations of Southeast Asia.

Coming on the eve of a meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (asean), it casts doubt on the arguments of optimists that a diplomatic dialogue with vietnam might still bear fruit.

It reinforces the views of pessimists that the gulf between Thailand and Vietnam remains as serious as ever despite the visit of Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach to Bangkok and other ASEAN capitals last month.

In the attacks, battalion-size forces -- mainly Vietnamese -- assaulted Cambodian refugee camps straddling the border. Thai forces reacted to the apparent intrusion by calling in five Phantom jets and helicopter gunships to support infrantry and tanks on the ground.

As of this writing Vietnamese forces were believed to be gradually withdrawing, although they reportedly had dug in at two points along the border. Two Thai aircraft were shot down Tuesday, fueling fears that the fighting was escalating.

This is not the first armed border clash between the two countries, but sources in Bangkok are quoted as calling it the most serious yet.

One theory is that Vietnam ordered the assault as a symbolic show of strength just before the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines gather in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, June 25 and 26.

The meeting is being held to plan a joint strategy toward a political settlement in Cambodia. The ASEAN countries want withdrawal of 200,000 Vietnamese troops from Cambodia and free elections toward a neutral government in Phnom Penh.

Later in the week, ASEAN members are to meet with US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and ministers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and India to seek an international approach to the Cambodia problem.

But the attack could backfire against Vietnam by: (1) increasing support from Thailand within ASEAN, and (2) increasing ASEAN nations' receptiveness to direct or indirect US security commitments. A big question here is whether the Vietnamese have "taught" the Thais "a lesson" -- or whether they have simply fueled anti-Vietnam feeling around the region.

Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, expressing the latter view, called the incident "another illustration which shows that the Vietnamese cannot be believed. They said they would not cross into Thailand."

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Muskie, just two months into office, has emphasized the US's security interest in Thailand.

In Washington, the State Department responded to the borded clash by accusing Vietnam of aggression and saying it would keep in close touch with Thai authorities.

The fighting also demonstrated Vietnam's refusal to yield on a concession sought by Thailand during Mr. Thach's visit last month: that vietnam agree not to attack "safe havens" of Cambodian refugees straddling the Thai-Cambodian border. There are almost 500,000 much refugees, and many of them are either Khmer Rouge (communist) or Khmer Serei (anticommunist) opponents of the Vietnam-backed Phnom Penh government.

Thailand wanted the safe havens so the threat of Vietnamese attack would not drive more of the refugees into Thailand. But Mr. Thach refused the Thai request, according to one Asian diplomat.

The clashes also demonstrated Vietnam's displeasure over the Thai policy of sending refugees camped in Thailand back to Cambodia.

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