China has taken another step to cement its relations with Southeast Asia and keep the Soviet Union from making new inroads there. The step is to support publicly a noncommunist united front government for Cambodia as an alternative to the present Vietnamese-dominated Heng Samrin government in Phnom Penh.
At a Feb. 1 press conference during a visit to Bangkok, Thailand, Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang publicly acknowledged the new policy. In so doing he took a step back from total and exclusive support to Khmer Rouge guerrillas who have been fighting the Vietnamese army since it drove them from power in 1979.
China would support a united front government headed by anticommunists such as the exiled Prince Norodom Sihanouk or Son Sann, head of a noncommunist group called the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF).
At present such a coalition would appear unlikely, since Prince Sihanouk, now living in North Korea, refuses to cooperate with the Khmer Rouge, and Son Sann's forces are reluctant to do so.
[Reuters, however, quoted the Bangkok Post Feb. 2 as saying Son Sann would replace the ousted Khmer Rouge Prime Minister Khieu Samphan and military commander Pol Pot "imminently."]
But Mr. Zhao's statement does much to assert solidarity with the noncommunist nations of Southeast Asia. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines -- have long urged China to put a little distance between itself and the Khmer Rouge.
ASEAN members have been concerned that they would lose a propaganda war if they continue to support the Khmer Rouge as the real government of Cambodia. They have hoped that even a loose united front, including respectable noncommunist anti-Vietnamese forces, would help in the propaganda battle with Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Otherwise, they fear, the Phnom Penh government would eventually win recognition in the United Nations and by the nonaligned countries.
In another statement Mr. Zhao made a long and eagerly awaited gesture to that Southeast Asian governments. He publicly declared that Chinese Support for communist movements in Southeast Asia is restricted to "ideological and moral considerations."
All this adds up to a concerted Chinese effort to block the Soviet-backed Vietnamese in Cambodia and to also build bridges with ASEAN members. The Chinese feel this is desirable, analysts say, to deter growth of Soviet influence in the area -- and to reassure Southeast Asian nations that China can help stabilize the region.
For this reason, Mr. Zhao also repeated a pledge to defend Thailand if Vietnamese forces attack. The kind of aid China would provide would depend on the situation, he said. Thai politicians and military leaders hope China would attack Vietnam in the north if Vietnam attacked Thailand.
Few analysts expect China's new flexibility on a united front (including the Khmer Rouge, but led by a noncommunist figure) to come to much.
Khmer Rouge military force is either limited or declining, according to military analysts in Bangkok. They put this guerrilla force at 20,000 to 40,000 soldiers.
The aging Son Sann's KPNLF claims control of only several thousand people in west Cambodia near the Thai border.
Prince Sihanouk, most popular of the opposition anti-Vietnamese leaders, says he will refuse to cooperate with the Khmer Rouge.
Already there are reports of anti-Vietnamese guerrillas defecting to the Heng Samrin government in Phnom Penh.
In Sakan, a colorful leader of the anticommunist, anti- Vietnamese resistance movement known as the Khmer Serei, defected last month with about 100 armed guerrillas, to the Heng Samrin side according to Thai press accounts.
According to a spokesman of the Royal Thai Army, the former Khmer Serei leader defected after refusing to join the Son Sann group. Other Khmer Serei factions have put a $100 reward on In Sakan's head, the Army spokesman was quoted as saying.
The Heng Samrin forces consider the defection a major victory and received it with the signs of a victory celebration, according to the spokesman. Heng Samrin forces hope to encourge more such defections, he added.
China is also backing ASEAN countries' rejection of a Vietnamese-inspired proposal for regional peace talks on Cambodia. ASEAN wants talks conducted under the broader auspices of the United Nations, where the General Assembly voted this fall for a withdrawal of an estimated 200,000 Vietnamese troops occupying Cambodia.
Both China and ASEAN are highly skeptical of the Vietnamese proposal to withdraw part of their troops if Thailand withdraws all anti-Vietnam forces now on both sides of the the Thai-Cambodia border. They view the proposal as a propaganda gimmick.