The ability of UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim to bridge the widening gap between Vietnam and noncommunist Southeast Asia is undergoing a major test. Mr. Waldheim's "shuttle diplomacy" trip to Thailand Aug. 4 following a two-day stopover in Vietnam could help answer these questions:
1. Can Vietnam and Thailand agree to a larger Un role in supervising and enforcing peace along the troubled Thai-Cambodian border? This could also stabilize relief supplies for Cambodia (Kampuchea).
2. Is the apparent willingness of both sides to see more kind of UN monitoring presence along the border a diplomatic subterfuge in a propaganda battle preceeding another shooting war?
(According to Reuters, Mr. Waldheim indicated there had been little progress made in more than 2 1/2 hours of talks with Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila Aug. 4. Mr. Waldheim was to meet later with Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda.)
The Secretary-General was expected to face hard bargaining from the Thais, who have said they would treat suspiciously anything Mr. Waldheim brought from his recent talks in Hanoi.
On June 23 Vietnam and its allies (Laos and the Vietnam-backed Heng Samrin regime in Cambodia) appear to have moved closer to Thailand and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. (ASEAN also includes Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore.e
A July 18 proposal by the foreign ministers of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia calls for a demilitarized zone on both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border under a joint commission and some kind of international control.
This seems similar to an earlier Thai proposal to secure border refugee "safe haven" areas from attack with the help of UN observers. But Thailand finds the July 18 proposal unacceptable because the demilitarized zone would be in Thai as well as Cambodian territory.
The Thais were also concerned that the proposal's call for direct or indirect talks with the Heng Samrin government would lead toward recognition and growing international support for the Vietnamese-dominated government. This would weaken the call by Thailand and other ASEAN governments for a Vietnamese military withdrawal from Cambodia and political self-determination there.
Many observers find Thailand's rejection of the July 18 proposal a major propaganda victory for Vietnam. After all, it was Thailand itself that first suggested a UN border presence. Now it seemed to be backing away as Vietnam became more sympathetic.
"The Vietnamese have caught Thailand on their own hook," commented one analyst.
Vietnam's propaganda coup may be helpful in this fall's UN General Assembly debate on whether to seat the Vietnam-backed Heng Samrin government instead of the outsted Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge, analysts note. Another result might be to build up some sympathy in ASEAN countries offended by Vietnam's June 23 incursion into Thailand. Finally, this show of Vietnamese "reasonableness" could be good propaganda cover if Vietnam decides to attack Thailand again.
Last week, on the eve of Mr. Waldheim's Vietnam visit, Thailand and other ASEAN members worked to right the propaganda balance and, perhaps, set the stage for more negotiations.
An ASEAN standing committee in Manila rejected Vietnam's proposal. It counterproposed a UN-supervised demilitarized zone restricted to the Cambodian side of the border. A UN team of observers would be posted inside Thailand.
On the surface it might seem that Mr. Waldheim has a good chance of finding areas of agreement for the two proposals. The difficulty remains the fundamentally conflicting aims of the two sides.
Backed by ASEAN, Thailand favors border stability but refuses any agreement strengthening the Heng Samrin government and Vietnam's dominance in Cambodia. Vietnam offers arragements to guarantee border stability but only at the cost of acquiescence in recognizing that the situation in Cambodia is "irreversible."
Mr. Waldheim's task is to see if these irreconcilable differences can be bypassed.