As Secretary of State George P. Shultz makes a swing through Southeast Asia, Vietnam is showing signs it wants to settle two international disputes by 1987. On Sunday, a day before Mr. Shultz began a two-day visit to Thailand, the United States State Department announced that Vietnam would hand over the remains of 26 US servicemen missing since the end of the Vietnam war. US officials also said the Vietnamese government had expressed a desire to clear up the problem of other missing servicemen over the next two years.
Yet Vietnam's gestures on the issue of missing servicemen almost certainly do not signal a moderation in their stance on Kampuchea (Cambodia), whose government Vietnam backs, analysts here say. In fact, the gestures may be an effort to minimize any US response to a major Vietnamese offensive against the forces resisting the Kampuchean government.
By showing their willingness to wrap up the issue of missing servicemen, the Vietnamese may be trying to point out to Washington the advantages of keeping communications open with Hanoi. The proposals, however, also resemble a tried and tested Vietnamese negotiating gambit -- showing flexibility on a secondary issue while remaining firm on the core problem, in this case Kampuchea.
Shultz has emphasized to his Thai hosts that he sees no linkage between the issue of missing servicemen and what he calls ``Vietnam's illegal occupation'' of Kampuchea. He told both the Thais and Kampuchean opposition leaders that, although Vietnamese diplomatic initiatives have to be explored, experience showed that past initiatives have led nowhere, a senior State Department official said.
In March, Vietnamese officials told Australian Foreign Minister Bill Hayden they were seeking ``basic normalization'' of the situation in Kampuchea. Vietnamese and Kampuchean officials told Mr. Hayden that supporters of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) -- a three-part, Western-backed alliance fighting the Kampuchean government -- would be welcome back in Kam-puchea until 1987, after which there would be no room for them. The implication of the cutoff date was clear: Vietnam hopes to wipe out CGDK forces by 1987.
Vietnam made a step in this direction late last year when it launched an unprecedentedly intense dry season offensive against the CGDK. Most observers expect a similar offensive later this year, which may spill into Thailand. If so, Bangkok expects a firm US response.
Reliable US and Southeast Asian sources maintain that the Reagan administration has been channeling covert aid directly to the two noncommunist factions of the CGDK since 1982. Washington officially denies this, but is now showing signs of losing some of its inhibitions about sending direct military aid.
In a TV interview with journalists last week, US Assistant Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz noted that CGDK fighters were getting enough arms from nations in the region. But he added that the US ``will work with those countries to make sure that the resistance has what it needs.''
The US is moving toward greater involvement with the CGDK at a time when there are major doubts about the coalition's fighting capacity.
During a meeting with Shultz on Monday, members of the two noncommunist factions of the CGDK presented what one US official called a ``strikingly positive outlook'' on their struggle against the Vietnamese. This attitude, the official said, was particularly striking ``in view of the punishment inflicted on them by the Vietnamese earlier this year.''