The specter of food shortages now hangs over Vietnam instead of Cambodia. Reports from relief workers, talks with residents in Vietnam, and testimony of refugees confirm that as Cambodia's food situation has improved, Vietnam's has deteriorated. But whether these two developments are related remains unclear.
The Soviet bloc's inability or unwillingness to give much aid is making the situation worse. Moreover, the West has little sympathy for Vietnam since its invasion of Cambodia.
Vietnamese officials cite bad weather, the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in early 1979, and bureaucratic muddling as the reasons for the food shortage. Some outside observers think that list should be exactly reversed.
A Western aid team back from northern Vietnam reports "poverty as bad as we have ever seen it." Old friends tell visitors in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) that food shortages are the worst since 1974. Refugees arriving in Singapore tell this correspondent of increased shortages of rice and vegetables.
Government pricing systems have been inadequate to induce farmers to sell rice and vegetables to the government distribution system, according to some observers.
So far it is difficult to get a nationwide view of the severity of the shortages. A full report is expected shortly from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.
Already a new pall has been case by Moscow's declaration that because of the US grain embargo, it can send no more grain to Vietnam this year.
UN food experts have been quoted as saying the country of 54 million people has harvested only 10 million tons of rice this year, 2 million tons less than last year and 3 million tons short of the 13-million-ton target.
Pests, poor storage, and a bad harvest are reported to have left the country with only 6.7 million tons to edible rice.
UN experts are said to have calculated the food deficit at 1.6 million tons, double last year's.
What all this has to do with Vietnam's 200,000-man occupation of Cambodia brings wide debate. "In principle impoverished Vietnam should not be able to support a foreign- aid effort in Cambodia," says one relief worker. "But on the other hand those 200,000 men grow their own rice and are self-supporting, reducing any drain on Vietnam," he adds. Still, if they were home working, they might be producing more food for their own country, others say.
The debate is not academic. Chinese, American, and noncommunist Southeast Asian nations argue Vietnam's presence will eventually drain Vietnam economically and militarily and force it to withdraw.
So far there is no sign that will happen. But bad relations are deepening Vietnam's problems. For example, Thailand canceled a 50,000-ton rice deal with Vietnam in June after a limited Vietnamese attack across the border into Thailand.
Other countries are reluctant to aid Vietnam in any way that might help it with its occupation of Cambodia.
For months Vietnamese officials have been discussing the cause of their difficulties. Natural disasters, including six typhoons and flooding in north central Vietnam, were considered mainly responsible for the worst food crisis since the 1975 end to the Vietnam war. But bad management, fuel shortages, a booming birth rate, and other factors were mentioned in the year-end economic report to the National Assembly b y Vice-Premier Nguyen Lam.