The provocative invasion of Thailand by Vietnamese troops on June 28 is the latest and perhaps the most noteworthy of Hanoi's diplomatic miscalculations during the past five years. In a single stroke, the Politburo has undone two years of patient footwork by Hanoi's deft foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach.
Since early 1978, the urbane and personable Thach had been studiously engaged in a much heralded "peace offensive," directed toward ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and, in particular, toward Malaysia and Indonesia. This offensive was aimed at driving a wedge between Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines on the one hand and Indonesia and Malaysia on the other. Mr. Thach's strategy was evidently meeting with some success, as both Malaysia and Indonesia were prepared to adopt a soft line toward Hanoi and to advocate that ASEAN begin a dialogue with the Vietnamese.
But coming as it did on the eve of the meeting the commemorating the 13th anniversary of ASEAN, the Vietnamese invasion completely dismantled two years of diplomatic maneuvering and unwillingly brought into reality the single quality which, heretofore, ASEAN had backed, and which Hanoi had exploited.
For the first time in memory, the five ASEAN nations stood unified behind a firm and unambiguous condemnation of Hanoi. They unanimously expressed grave concern over the growing rivalry of the superpowers which was being played out in ASEAN's backyard.
The ability of the Hanoi/Soviet regime to take a responsible role in the ASEAN region is now in question. The isolation in which Vietnam finds itself as a result of the Thailand invasion is nothing short of a disaster for a Vietnam trying to fight its way back to respectability in the region. Not only have the vietnamese failed to gather fragmented ASEAN support, but they are now forced to rely more and more heavily on Soviet arms and supplied to fuel their misadventures not only in Thailand, but in Cambodia and Laos as well. This has driven the whole of ASEAN closer to the United States and China.
The effort required to support the immense military machine, which is, in effect, the foreign ministry, has come at the expense of any and all social and economic redevelopment programs internally, and makes growth and participation in regional economic activities temporarily out of the question. Ultimately, Vietnam must rely more on the destabilizing hand of the Soviets to provide this economic aid.
But the glaring misstep into Thailand is only one in a long line of foreign policy faults which have tended to isolate Vietnam.
The cynical and inhumane treatment of refugees has stirred world opinion and festered resentment against the regime, and placed a tremendous burden on hanoi's regional neighbors. In cambodia, the gross mismanagement and selective distribution of foodstuffs by the Vietnamese is tantamount to genocide by starvation.
And in an effort to mobilize national will and stiffen her crumbling morale, hanoi has engaged in a strident and extremely dangerous campaign to provoke fear of a traditional bete-noire, china. This more than anything escape from the escalating trend of global confrontation, hanoi-style.
But the threat that Vietnam poses in the region has spurred a new awakening within ASEAN, which can and should be encouraged by the United States. The alliance no longer accepts Hanoi's credo -- in the words of Ho Chi Minh -- that "nothing is more precious than freedom and independence." Clearly, that freedom has not been extended to Cambodia and Laos, or even Hanoi's own citizens.
The United States must view the are with mixed feelings. Our military involvement in the region ended over seven years ago. Our total disengagement from Vietnam was completed for us over five years ago. Since that inglorious departure we have been almost totally immobilized in the ASEAN region.
But now Hanoi's bungling has presented us with the perfect opportunity to develop a clear, consistent, and enlightened policy regarding ASEAN, a policy which has been curiously absent during the Carter administration.
We must make the nations of ASEAN aware that there is an alternative to the exploitative, amoral, and erraic Hanoi politburo, and that it is in the continued best interests of ASEAN to resist the continued overtures from Hanoi. We must become at least as aware as the nations a true friendship based on awareness of their strategic value, their economic potential, cultural development and right to a regional autonomy.
There is a new Asia, and it is anxious for our help.