A few months ago, while Vietnam's dry-season offensive was still raging, a Chinese official held a secret meeting with the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. Things seemed bad for the Khmer Rouge and their noncommunist allies in the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK): They had already lost most of their bases on the Thai border. Despite this, the Chinese official says he found Pol Pot cheerful and optimistic.
``I am not worried about losing our border bases,'' Pol Pot told his guest. ``Now I don't have to look two ways at once -- I can concentrate on the interior.'' Khmer Rouge troops would now push deep inside Kampuchea (Cambodia), cutting the highways and harassing the Vietnamese.
Pol Pot is said to have repeated this line in another secret meeting several weeks ago. This time he reportedly met Thai deputy chief of staff, Gen. Chavalist Yongchaiyut, one of the main formulators of Thailand's Kampuchea policy.
The fact that Pol Pot openly represented the Khmer Rouge for the first time since 1979 is significant. His appearance reflects the level of concern of the CGDK's allies, and is seen as a move to try to reassure them that the CGDK can continue to mount an effective opposition to Vietnamese forces in Kampuchea.
The communist Khmer Rouge and the two noncommunist factions in the CGDK argue that the Vietnamese offensive was a blessing in disguise: It forced the Khmer Rouge from their defensive positions and obliged them to adopt guerrilla tactics.
Now the monsoon rains have begun and the coalition will have to transform its words into deeds.
The rainy season, which usually begins in May and lasts till October is held to favor guerrillas over conventionally-equipped troops. It is likely to be a time of intense activity both on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena.
The three factions will be under pressure from their allies to prove their guerrilla skills quickly -- preferably before the fall, when the United Nations considers Kampuchea's credentials. The CGDK is recognized by the UN as the legitimate government of Kampuchea, even though the Vietnamese-backed People's Republic of Kampuchea controls the country.
Meanwhile the coalition's allies, China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand -- and the United States, will be trying to shore up international support for the coalition.
All three factions claim to have started moving their fighters inside Kampuchea. The two noncommunist groups are said to have several thousand troops inside Kampuchea, most of them some 25 to 30 miles inside the northwestern border.
A sizable number of Khmer Rouge seem to have moved into the interior, Western analysts say. One large group is located west of the capital, Phnom Penh.
The Khmer Rouge say they are able to move large groups inside because Vietnamese troops are tied up along the Thai-Kampuchean border. A more likely reason is that they feel the need to prove to the Chinese, Thais, and others that they are still a major threat to the Vietnamese.
Fear of prohibitively high -- and irreplaceable -- casualties may have discouraged the Khmer Rouge from moving in before. This year they may be prepared to sacrifice their own troops to regain lost political ground.
Yet Khmer Rouge victories are not necessarily welcomed by backers of the noncommunist factions. The US and ASEAN want to see the Khmer Rouge role in the war decrease. Eventually they hope the noncommunists will become the dominant force in the coalition. This is still a long way off: The Khmer Rouge probably number 35,000 to 40,000. The noncommunists together number less than 30,000.
By changing their tactics the Khmer Rouge are taking a big gamble: If they sustain heavy casualties, they will be hard pressed to find new recruits to take their place.
Peking and the Khmer Rouge themselves regularly claim that the guerrillas are able to raise large numbers of new military recruits. Recently, the Chinese said 10,000 Khmers had volunteered for the Khmer Rouge during the preceding year. This report seems highly unlikely. The Vietnamese meanwhile appear determined to seal the Thai-Kampuchean border as tightly as possible. Over the last year they have built a network of strategic roads, fences, and minefields along the border. Since the onset of the rains, they have withdrawn some of the troops stationed along the frontier. But they are apparently keeping a mixed force including Vietnamese and soldiers of their ally, the People's Republic of Kampuchea, along the border. Yet sealing the border will be a difficult and hazardous task.
The lack of serious Chinese retaliation against Vietnam during the dry season continues to worry CGDK allies and please Hanoi. The Vietnamese say Peking's preoccupation these days is economic development, not Kampuchea.
The Chinese admit their economy did influence their decision. ``Our first priority,'' one Chinese official said, ``is to retain our stability in order to continue development. And peace and development go togther.''
But the Chinese add that this has not reduced their commitment to the CGDK. Peking will maintain a ``steady and adequate'' flow of military hardware, an official said. And, he said, a recent modification in Peking's conditions for normalization with Moscow did not mean any lessening of determination with regard to Kampuchea.
Before Peking and Moscow can normalize relations, the Chinese say, three obstacles have to be removed.
These are the military buildup along the Sino-Soviet border, the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, and Moscow's support for the Vietnamese presence in Kampuchea.
Recently the Chinese have begun to say that substantial progress on one of these issues would be enough to set off an improvement in relations.
``But we think the easiest problem to resolve,'' a Chinese official said, ``is Kampuchea.'' The Soviets are the ``key element'' in the Kampuchea problem, said the official. ``The Vietnamese are stubborn, but if Moscow stopped providing military and economic aid, they could not continue their occupation of Kampuchea.''