UN: slow start, pitched debates and progress

In public, unproductive. In rhetoric, acrimonious. But in private, useful. This is how many well-placed diplomats assess the likely tone of the General Assembly session opening here Sept. 16.

Events outside this session's framework -- such as special-topic UN assemblies on Afghanistan, Palestinian rights, and North-South economics, as well as the United States election -- have preempted the current debates here.

But, in the UN's carpeted corridors and meeting rooms and at softly lit neighboring restaurants the visiting foreign ministers and dignitaries are expected to beaver away at resolving differences between thier governments. This behind-the-scenes process may well help along the slight relaxation in world tensions that many diplomats here believe is already under way after a very difficult period.

On Sept. 25, for example, US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie has a date here with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Grmyko. According to infored sources here, they will seek ways to prevent further deterioration of East-West relations and discuss the question of limiting intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

Similarly, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co thach has a date with his Thai counterpart, Marshall Siddhi Savetsila. They will be looking for ways to stop the situation in Southeast Asia from sliding further toward confrontation.

Even the highly contentious issue of which regime is entitled to Cambodia's UN seat -- the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin government or the Chinese-backed Pol Pot insurgents -- now seems unlikely to come up, at least in the early stages of this assembly. The association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is not expected to push the issue. And the Vietnamese don't want to stir it up at the same time as their talks with the Thai foreign minister; they are hoping the Heng Samrin goverment will be seated next year anyway.

(On the matter of the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia, something which is almost certain to surface during the assembly, Vietnam may gain a few votes compated to last year, but it is still expected to be given a diplomatic drubbing.)

In the aftermath of Poland and Afghanistan, the meetings expected to take place between the foreign ministers of Western and Eastern Europe also are viewed with great interest here. The Europeans are known to be particularly eager to preserve detente.

On the Middle East, the public debate is certain to be lively. But again no new diplomatic moves are anticipated. Although the special session of the Genral Assembly on Palestinian rights called last July for Israel to withdraw frm all occupied Arab territories by Nov. 15, this does not mean that on that date the Arabs will automatically demand sanctions against Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization, still hoping for eventual US flexibility, is expected to wait until the dust has settled after the American elections before pressing for further diplomatic gains.

Meanwhile, senior officials here point to the following signs of a modest diplomatic thaw, at least in Asian region:

* The Soviet Union, while strongly supporting Vietnam, has not assured it of its automatic support in case of trouble with China or with Thailand. Instead, the Soviet Union is putting its eggs in a second basket and courting the ASEAN countries.

* The members of ASEAN, while united in opposition to Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, differ over how to counter it. Malaysia, Indonesia, and to some extent the Philippines, are said to believe that ASEAN should not remain glued to china and to the Pol Pot guerrillas.

* The United States, while still playing the "Chinese card," is described as feeling that leaving the diplomatic field to China in Southeast Asia may further China's long-term interests, but not necessarily US interests. Some US officials are known to believe that at some point the US and China will have to part diplomatically from one another in the area. High-level meetings between US and Vietnamese officials have recently taken place in New York.

However, the public rhetoric will be vigorous in some areas. The collapse of the just-concluded UN Special Assembly on Development, for instance, will probably mean that the developing nations will vent their frustrations on the United States. They see Washington as the main cause of the special assembly's failure

The Soviets, too, are unlikely to escape unscathed. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan will certainly be denounced both in speeches and in a new strongly wordered resolution. But here again diplomatic signals indicate that Pakistan and other Islamic countries are discreetly seeking a realistic and less rigid approach to the problem backstage. Pakistan's leader, Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, will come to the UN and is expected to make many behind-the-scenes contacts.

The relative dullness of this annual session, of course, could be transformed into a fiery confrontation should an explosion (like Iran or Afghanistan) occur somewhere in the world. Diplomats here are particularly concerned at this time with the tense and unstable situation in Lebanon and with the possibility of some sort of Syrian-Israeli confrontation.

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