The weekend announcement that Vietnam would withdraw all its forces from Kampuchea by 1990 underlines Vietnam's keenness to resolve the Kampuchea problem -- on its own terms. The announcement shows some flexibility on a secondary issue for Vietnam -- its military presence in Kampuchea (formerly Cambodia). But it does not mean Vietnam is prepared to compromise on the primary issue: political control of Kampuchea through its intermediary, the Marxist Khmer People's Revolutionary Party.
The announcement also probably foreshadows heavier fighting during the next dry season in Indochina, which starts in October.
The pullout announcement was made in a communiqu'e of the Indochinese foreign ministers conference, held in the Kampuchean capital, Phnom Penh.
This is the second deadline the Vietnamese and their Khmer allies in the People's Republic of Kampuchea have set this year.
Earlier the Vietnamese and their Kampuchean allies announced that they expected to have basically solved the Kampuchea issue by 1987.
The two deadlines indicate that both Vietnam and the Kampucheans it backs are becoming increasingly confident that within the next few years they can break the military strength of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea -- a shaky three-part alliance that opposes the Vietnamese occupation and is supported by China, the United States, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). During the last dry season, Vietnamese troops destroyed most coalition bases along the Thai-Kampuchean bor der.
Kampuchea is a security issue for Vietnam, which feels it cannot be safe unless its southwestern flank -- Kampuchea -- is safe from hostile influence. During the years of Khmer Rouge rule (1975-78), Hanoi became concerned that Kampuchea was becoming a springboard for a two-pronged Chinese attack.
This fear was one of the main considerations behind Vietnam's invasion of Kampuchea in December 1978. Shortly before the invasion the Vietnam-backed Khmer People's Revolutionary Party was organized from less than 100 Khmer communists who had spent the Khmer Rouge years in Vietnam, or who had defected from the Khmer Rouge at various times.
Hanoi's present military presence in Kampuchea -- estimated to be between 160,000 and 180,000 -- is a temporary measure. The troops will be withdrawn as soon as Hanoi feels that the Kampuchean government it backs can handle its own security.
Similarly, Hanoi would be happy to see certain coalition-government leaders -- namely, Prince Norodom Sihanouk and to a lesser extent former Premier Son Sann -- given positions in the Kampuchean government, so long as these are purely ornamental and do not dilute the dominance of the Vietnam-backed Kampuchean government. Hanoi has in fact long been trying to woo the prince, apparently still popular among many ordinary Khmers, away from the coalition government.
Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach is due in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta August 21. Hanoi obviously hopes that the foreign ministers' statement will induce ASEAN to be a little more interested in negotiations -- if not now, then at the end of the dry season.
The foreign ministers' communiqu'e also expressed hopes for better relations with China and the US. Neither is likely to respond with any great warmth. Peking is still the coalition's main supplier of money and munitions. And although Hanoi last week returned the bodies of 26 US servicemen missing since the end of the Vietnam war, Washington has regularly asserted that resolution of the MIA issue will not lessen its support of the coalition.