The onset of the Vietnamese dry-season offensive in Kampuchea (Cambodia) is expected to bring with it more military tension along the Vietnamese-Chinese border.
The first major Vietnamese attack of the season was launched two weeks ago against Nong Chan, a camp controlled by the Khmer People's National Liberation Front. The KPNLF is the larger of the two noncommunist members of the tripartite Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). Like most CGDK bases, the camp is within a few miles of the Thai-Kampuchean border.
Soon after the attack began, a Chinese official indicated to this reporter that China would respond to any large-scale offensive in Kampuchea by increasing pressure on Vietnam's northern border. Any incursion by Vietnamese troops into Thai territory, he indicated, would lead to an intensification of this pressure.
Fighting around Nong Chan was in fact followed almost immediately by reports of relatively small-scale military action along the 715-mile Vietnamese-Chinese border.
Major Vietnamese incursions into Thailand have taken place during several Vietnamese dry-season offensives since the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime six years ago. The chances of spillovers this year are higher than average: Sources close to the Vietnamese are predicting a larger offensive than usual, and say that Vietnamese military commanders are already speaking of the need for incursions - something they rarely discuss in advance.
The threat of Chinese pressure on the northern border definitely worries Vietnam, but for economic rather than military reasons.
The frontier area is better defended now than it was in February 1979, when China invaded briefly with only limited success. But military tension would force Vietnam to divert more of its scanty economic resources, including fuel and food, to the area.
The threat of pressure seems unlikely to deter Vietnam, however. The KPNLF successfully withstood the Vietnamese attack on Nong Chan, and fighting there has died down. But there are now reports of a Vietnamese buildup around the KPNLF headquarters of Ampil. Sources close to Hanoi confirm that the camp will probably be Vietnam's next target.
Reports from Phnom Penh speak of over 2,000 civilians being sent to the border areas to clear brush and repair roads, apparently in preparation from military operations against CGDK border encampments. The civilians, from all walks of life, will work for two or three months before being replaced by other contingents. Some 3,000 inhabitants of the province of Takeo are also said to have been sent to do similar work on the border.
Western analysts have often asserted that the Vietnamese leadership is divided over certain key issues. They have usually been proved wrong. The Kampuchea problem, however, does seem to have provoked a difference of opinion in Hanoi.
The difference is one of emphasis rather than basic objective. Officials regularly briefed by Hanoi say that the Vietnamese military is growing increasingly impatient with the Kampuchean stalemate. It would like to wipe out the Khmer resistance, even at the cost of a further deterioration of relations with Thailand and other members of the pro-Western Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Some civilian leaders apparently disagree.
Reports of the military's impatience may throw some light on a curious incident that took place in Bangkok earlier this year. The Thai government announced in July that a member of the Vietnamese Embassy had recently been in contact with a senior member of the Communist Party of Thailand. Once a major threat, the Communist Party is now only a shadow of its former self, but the government here remains concerned that one day it might grow again into a serious problem. In addition to serious internal problems, the party also suffers from a lack of outside assistance: China, once its main arms supplier, is now allied to the Bangkok government.
The July incident suggests that Vietnam was hoping to reopen communications with Thailand's Communist Party: Although the two movements have been ideologically at loggerheads in recent years, Hanoi in the past trained Thai communist military cadres. A well-placed source recently confirmed that several meetings between the Vietnamese and the Thai Communist Party took place - and that the Vietnamese official concerned was acting on behalf of the Defense Ministry, not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ideological divergences, however, apparently proved impossible to bridge.
More aid to the CGDK is thought to be on the way. In early October, China promised the three CGDK factions weapons to arm a further 3,000 men each. These arms should be arriving soon.
Last week a Southeast Asian official said he expected an increase in American covert aid to the CGDK. The official said he believed the White House was in the process of clearing the aid with the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee.