Cambodia: time to switch?

Three months ago, with three other retired American diplomats, I returned from an unofficial fact-finding visit to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. We hoped to discover, during our three-week stay, whether there is any prospect for a settlement of the problem of Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia and attainment of the peace which has eluded Indochina for four decades.

Our visit did not reassure us on either point.

In Vietnam, Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach and other officials impressed us as determined to pursue their present course. As a climax to 30 years of almost uninterrupted warfare, Vietnam has achieved Ho Chi Minh's vision of dominating Indochina. Laos and Cambodia, where 45,000 and 150,000 Vietnamese troops are respectively stationed, are really protectorates of Vietnam, with foreign affairs and defense controlled from Hanoi.

War and mismanagement of the economy have combined to impoverish Vietnam, it is true, but the people are so inured to austerity that trade and aid embargoes and diplomatic isolation are unlikely to weaken Hanoi's political will to dominate its neighbors. Admitting that the years from 1978 to 1980 were disastrous, Thach nonetheless told us ''the worst is over.'' Soviet aid to Vietnam in excess of $1 billion per year is obviously a factor in his optimism.

Chinese hostility preoccupied the Vietnamese leaders we met to the point of obsession. Chinese power is respected and feared, yet realistically the military pressure which China can apply on its southern border with Vietnam is limited by the threat of Soviet intervention on behalf of Vietnam.

Vietnamese interlocutors were not particularly perturbed by the military threat to Cambodia posed by Democratic Kampuchea. Democratic Kampuchea is in reality a collection of jungle villages along the Thai border occupied by 40,000 insurgents and some 200,000 civilians. Although the insurgents are regularly supplied with arms by the Chinese, Hanoi's leaders call the damage these forces can inflict ''mosquito bites.''

We deduced that the diplomatic bite of Democratic Kampuchea is a greater concern. For four years a substantial majority of the world's nations, in reaction to Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia, have voted to retain Democratic Kampuchea in Cambodia's seat at the United Nations. Democratic Kampuchea is a flimsy and disorganized coalition of noncommunist exiles loyal to Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann who are in reluctant and uneasy alliance with Pol Pot's remaining followers. Nonetheless, the UN vote has diplomatically isolated both Hanoi and Phnom Penh and denied them access to badly needed trade and development assistance.

Yet this deprivation has not induced accommodation to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) hopes of achieving a broadened government in Phnom Penh. Hun Sen, foreign minister of the People's Republic of Kampuchea, described the regime in Phnom Penh as ''irreversible,'' a phrase borrowed from his Vietnamese mentors, and he specifically excluded Democratic Kampuchean leaders from participation in it. We concluded that Hanoi is counting on the further steady consolidation in power and authority of the Phnom Penh leadership. That leadership is sustained in power not only by the Vietnamese troops but by popular fears of a return to power of Pol Pot and the political lethargy of Cambodians who barely survived his genocidal rule and want to rebuild their lives in tranquillity.

Renewed hostilities in Indochina in recent months reinforce these pessimistic findings. During this dry season, Vietnamese forces in Cambodia destroyed three major coalition bases along the Thai border, blunting the military effectiveness and diminishing the political credibility of Democratic Kampuchea. Fighting on a small scale erupted between Thai and Vietnamese units, and the United States accelerated delivery of military equipment to Thailand. The Chinese retaliated in April with artillery fire against Vietnamese settlements and forces, seeking once again ''to teach Vietnam a lesson'' which Vietnam refuses to learn.

There are also lessons here for China, Thailand, its noncommunist neighbors in ASEAN, and the US, all of which would like to see Cambodia restored to its 1954 to 1970 role as a nonaligned buffer state between Vietnam and Thailand. One of the lessons is that this objective, in present and foreseeable circumstances, is unattainable. Another is that Democratic Kampuchea is a wasting asset.

Persistence in a policy of confrontation can only prolong the Cambodian civil war, entrench the Vietnamese more deeply in Cambodia, and augment Soviet influence in both Vietnam and Cambodia. Is it not time for the US, in consultation with friendly ASEAN nations, to frame new policies which have some chance of moderating Vietnamese behavior without jeopardizing the security of Southeast Asia? The Cambodians, after all they have endured the past decade, deserve better than to languish in diplomatic isolation from most of the rest of Asia and the West.

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