Vietnam defies China; smiles on Southeast Asia
United Nations, N.Y. — A defiant stare at China. A smile for the ASEAN countries. These are the two faces of Hanoi's current foreign policy.
Vietnam will not withdraw from Kampuchea (Cambodia) until China ''stops threatening it.''
While Hanoi's leaders are willing to sit down with the representatives of the ASEAN countries (Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Philippines) to discuss all problems of mutual interest related to Southeast Asia, they refuse to discuss Kampuchea's internal affairs.
A compromise with Prince Sihanouk is not in the cards because ''he simply lends a respectable face to the repugnant, genocidal Khmer Rouge.''
Nguyen Co Thach, Vietnam's minister of foreign affairs, outlined the basic elements of his country's foreign policy to the Monitor at the United Nations.
''China seeks to destabilize us, by bleeding us in Kampuchea through the Khmer Rouge and by threatening us with a 'second lesson' on our northern border. But we have 1,000 years of experience in how to resist the Chinese. Recently, we offered China a de facto cease-fire. It has rejected it,'' says Thach.
Even so, he claims Vietnam withdrew part of its forces from Kampuchea last July. He does not say, however, that a thaw in Kampuchea must follow on the heels of a thaw between China and the Soviet Union.
''We have had problems with China long before the Soviet Union and even Russia existed,'' he says.
He emphatically denies that a new military offensive near the Thai border is about to be launched. In fact, according to him, Vietnam is willing to go out of its way to improve relations with the ASEAN countries and reassure them about its intentions.
''We have said and we repeat: At a conference on Southeast Asia we would be willing to negotiate everything.''
Vietnam continues to refuse to take part in a United Nations-sponsored conference on Kampuchea because ''Cambodia (Kampuchea) has a legal regime and such a conference would merely be meddling in Cambodia's domestic affairs.''
At the General Assembly Vietnam is not seeking a confrontation with the ASEAN countries. It is not likely to challenge the Khmer Rouge delegation's credentials since such a move would be defeated, anyway.
What it wants, apparently, is to pursue its peace offensive and promote better feelings between itself and the ASEAN countries.
Nguyen Co Thach categorically states that ''there are no Soviet bases in Vietnam, only facilities, such as those Western powers enjoy in Singapore.'' He regrets that there exists no dialogue between Washington and Hanoi.
''Still, there is reason for optimism. Before we were at war, now only at cold war. We have had our ups and downs with the United States. Some day we'll be able to normalize our relations,'' he said.
As a token of its good will, Vietnam has been particularly cooperative with American relatives of MIAs in recent times.
France, Sweden, and Finland provide Vietnam with some economic assistance. Other Western countries discreetly try to be of help as well.
''We are beginning to exploit offshore oil. This year just a few drops. But the smell of oil may bring us new friends,'' he says laughing.
Vietnam's economic situation remains very bad, he admits. And Kampuchea is a burden.
''But the worst - 1979 and 1980 - is over. This year's rice crop is expected to be good. We are not about to collapse and to kneel before China,'' he adds.