Vietnam now

The armed skirmishes taking place on the border between China and Vietnam are probably far from most people's thoughts. Indeed they are not the stuff of urgent world concern. But they may be worth focusing on if only to make a point of historical value to present and future generations. Thus, the public can be reminded that the United States plunged into the war in South Vietnam largely because China was thought to be behind the communist Vietnamese aggression and needed to be stopped. Now, two decades later, China and Vietnam - both communist states - are exchanging gunfire for the second time in four years. Nationalism and rivalry are proving to be stronger forces than communist ideology.

That is not a startling discovery, but it is something policymakers and diplomats can usefully bear in mind when dealing with the communist threat wherever it rears its head.

The Sino-Vietnamese border clashes do not appear to be as acute as those in 1979, when China responded to Vietnam's invasion of Kampuchea (Cambodia) with a large show of force which escalated into a war. Few troops are involved on this occasion. But Peking does seem again to be warning Hanoi - this time not to go too far with its military offensive against anti-Vietnamese resistance forces in Kampuchea. The rebel forces are supported by Peking while Vietnam and its puppet government in Phnom Penh enjoy the patronage of the Soviet Union.

Could it be that Peking is looking for ways to come to terms with the Kampuchea question and is ''softening up'' the Vietnamese for some kind of political compromise? No one can be sure. There is no evidence that China would accept, say, a coalition beween the three resistance groups in Kampuchea (Pol Pot, Prince Sihanouk, and Son Sann) and the present Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin regime. But the fact that such a concept has been put forward by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) means that these countries think China would not stand in the way of such a solution. To an outsider, it does indeed seem to offer a plausible way out of a difficult situation.

It is perhaps significant, too, that China does not to seem to be afraid of what the Russians might do if it continues to harass the Vietnamese. The current border clashes come against the background of a Chinese effort in recent months to improve relations with Moscow and reduce tensions along the Sino-Soviet frontier, which have kept both nations on edge since the split of 1960. Was there some meeting of the minds on Vietnam when the Chinese met with new Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in the Kremlin? Certainly the issue would have been discussed.

The fact is, Deng Xiaoping is dramatically modifying both the domestic and the foreign policies of his Maoist predecessors. If he is to pull China up by the bootstraps and bring it up to modern-day standards, he needs peace and security for his country. This means stabilizing the Sino-Soviet frontier and also reversing the Soviet encirclement of China - in Afghanistan and Vietnam above all. It is possible that the price Peking is exacting for an improvement of Sino-Soviet ties (which Moscow also wants) is in part a resolution of the civil war in Kampuchea which takes account of Chinese interests there. In other words, a coalition government.

These are only matters for speculation, of course. What the international community can hope for - and should foster - is a negotiated settlement that will at long last end the killing in Kampuchea. What men and women of goodwill everywhere can hope for is that the people of Kampuchea, who have lived through indescribable suffering, will cease to be the pawns of rival powers - and regain the right to rule their own affairs.

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