In the process of trying to involve the United Nations in a solution to the vexing problem of Cambodia, noncommunist Southeast Asia has highlighted the areas of division and agreement that dominate Asia.
The five nations making up the Association of Southest Asian NAtions (ASEAN) -- Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines -- have also shown they can use the machinery of the United Nations to moderate, on paper at least, the stands of larger powers like China and the United States.
The unanswered question after last week's special UN conference on Cambodia is whether Vietnam will engage in talks with a committee set up by the conference. Such a dialogue, it is hoped, will point toward a compromise political settlement in Cambodia and withdrawal of some 200,000 Vietnamese troops there.
So far Vietnam has stuck to its position of willingness to talk to its neighbors, while refusing to negotiate with any committee produced by the conference.
The task at the conference, which was called by last year's General Assembly, was to define the mandate to be entrusted to the permanent committee. As delegates meandered through UN halls, climbed to the rostrum to speak, and confered quietly, it became clear that Cambodia is a pivot around which the political currents of Asia swirl.
Conspicuous by their absence were Vietnam and its backer, the Soviet Union. Vietnam argues that the situation created by its early 1979 invasion of Cambodia is irreversible.Although boycotting the conference, Vietnamese diplomats visibly roamed the halls, assessing the goings-on.
Conspicuous by its presence was China, Vietnam's chief enemy, using the UN to champion the Khmer Rouge cause.
Indeed, the main action of the conference was the behind-the-scenes task of reconciling China's hard-line attitude toward Vietnam with the more conciliatory consensus reached before the conference by ASEAN members.
ASEAN's line was stressed in an address by S. Dhanabalan, foreign minister of comparatively hard-line Singapore. In words deliberately chosen to part company with China, he declared ASEAN had no intention to "bleed" anyone, or to bring any people "to their knees." He added, "We are not here to put Vietnam on trial."
A working group of conference members struggled with China's challenge to ASEAN's formula for a peaceful settlement in Cambodia.
A special Chinese draft challenged ASEAN's draft resolution for presentation to the conference. It rejected ASEAN's call for an interim UN-sponsored administration to disarm competing Cambodian armies and ensure that no group would gain power by force.
While calling for free and peaceful elections, China wanted nothing that would undermine the Khmer Rouge's claim to be the rightful government of Cambodia.
ASEAN countries hoped that slight changes in wording of their draft would keep its substance but prevent an open rift with China. China agreed to put aside some proposed changes to the draft, apparently demonstrating the pressures for unity that working within the UN can produce.
The same pressure for unity appears to have helped moderate the American position. In a meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers in Manila last month US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. irritated some by "coming on too strong" against Vietnam. with too strong a pro-China tilt.
"We conveyed our feelings to him. Now he is more supportive and not 'overmuscular.' said one ASEAN diplomat.
At the UN, Secretary Haig was strongly critical of Vietnam, but in a step to put distance between the US and the China-backed Khmer Rouge, both he and US Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick pointedly walked out when Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary rose to speak. (The US has no diplomatic relations with the Khmer Rouge, but voted for them to retain Cambodia's UN seat on the grounds that Vietnam's occupation of the country was illegal.)
Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila expressed hope that having countries with good relations with Vietnam on the permanent UN committee (Sri Lanka, for example) might produce progress toward a settlement. Indeed the ASEAN intention is to involve as many nonaligned countries as possible.
One hope is that the growing costs of occupying Cambodia and confronting China will make Vietnam see compromise as in its interest. Indeed there are some who see reports of differences between Vietnam and the Soviets as a sign of hope.
"I believe there is some friction. We cannot tell what the Vietnamese are feeling. We can just hope." said Foreign Minister Siddhi.