Vietnam will have to negotiate on Kampuchea -- eventually

Seen from Washington, the fighting in Kampuchea has the dreary potential of continuing for years to come.

But US State Department officials contend that the combination of pressures being brought to bear on Vietnam ought eventually to force the Vietnamese to negotiate a settlement of the conflict.

The US is convinced that guerrilla resistance to the Vietnamese occupiers of Kampuchea (Cambodia) is growing. That resistance is carried out mostly by the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge forces which operate from bases inside Kampuchea and near the Thai border.

But, according to the State Department, the non-communist Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF), under former premier Son Sann, has improved its organization, training, and discipline and is increasing in size.

The US is providing moral and political support to Son Sann. Malaysia has offered financial support. China has supplied a limited number of weapons.

But Son Sann says that he needs more. As he puts it, ''I'm always asking for the Big Stick.''

The State Department argues that without a viable non-Communist alternative in Kampuchea, the conflict can have but two possible victors:

* The Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin regime, which the US deems unacceptable.

* Or the Khmer Rouge, an international pariah which the US contends it does not want to see restored to power.

But Washington is not giving Son Sann all the support which he says he would like to get.

In an interview with the Monitor toward the end of last year, Son Sann said he felt that as a result of the bitter experience which they suffered during the Vietnam war, the American people were ''afraid of involvement'' in Indochina.

The US argues that its policy is to follow the strategy developed by the five-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). US officials say that this strategy includes support for Kampuchea's non-Communist resistance. But, they say, such a strategy will require much time and patience.

Son Sann and his men argue, however, that time is running out. They say that with large numbers of Kampucheans being sent to the Soviet Union for training and with the Vietnamese entrenching themselves in the country, now is the time to strengthen the KPNLF. If it were strengthened enough, they add, the Vietnamese might be forced to negotiate a way out of the Kampuchea conflict.

American analysts seem to be divided in their views as to the KPNLF's potential for growth. Those with a more conservative estimate point out that the organization's supporters are largely to be found in the cities and towns of Kampuchea and not among the farmers who make up the majority of the population.

Meanwhile, Son Sann himself -- a soft-spoken, seemingly frail septuagenarian, who looks more like a grandfather than a resistance fighter -- has managed to get support from several of the non-communist Southeast Asian nations. Such a feat would have been almost unthinkable a year or two ago.

What is not yet clear is whether that support will really add up to much in practical terms. What is clear is that some of the ASEAN nations think that having Son Sann in the Kampuchean resistance adds an element of respectability to it which would not be conceivable were the Khmer Rouge the sole resistance movement.

Son Sann is now reported to be considering the possibility of meeting with Khmer Rouge leaders and with Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the former chief of state, during a visit to Peking which he is expected to make early next month.

But some members of ASEAN are uncomfortable about a policy of resistance to Vietnam which locks them closely to China. The Indonesians, for example, have a tendency to worry more about China's influence in Southeast Asia than they do about that of Vietnam.

Thailand seems to benefit from a situation which ''bleeds'' Vietnam. But some Thais would prefer to keep their distance from China.

In the United States, critics of American policy such as David W.P. Elliott, a Vietnam specialist and assistant professor at Pomona College, argue that by attempting to isolate Vietnam economically and diplomatically, the US has helped to make Vietnam more dependent on the Soviet Union. This is a result, they say, presumably opposite to the one which the US desires.

In testimony before a House subcommittee last October, Elliott argued that US policy toward Indochina since 1978 has amounted to deferring to China's policy in the region.

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