Slight chill felt in Vietnamese-Soviet ties. Hanoi suspicious of new Soviet policy on Asia

Diplomats in Hanoi are digging for clues on how Vietnam might respond if Peking reacts favorably to Moscow's recent overtures. So far, only a subtle chill toward Moscow has been detected in official Vietnamese reports since July 28. That was the day Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave a speech in Vladivostok, in the Soviet Far East, that launched a new Soviet policy toward Asia and, most notably, toward China.

For instance, Hanoi recently described Vietnamese-Soviet relations as ``proletarian internationalism.''

In the sometimes arcane, keyhole analysis of Western observers, that signals a shift from the normally warmer ``socialist internationalism.'' Soviet proletarians, or workers, are now closer to Vietnam than the socialist government in the Kremlim is, the analysis goes.

Also unlike past practice, the Vietnamese have dropped key points in their official reports of Soviet announcements.

For instance, Vietnamese reports of Mr. Gorbachev's July 28 speech eliminated both favorable assessments of Sino-Soviet ties and references to improving Sino-Vietnamese relations.

The possibility that the Soviet Union -- Vietnam's strategic ally and main benefactor -- would force Vietnam into settling its differences with China seems unlikely, Western diplomats in Hanoi say. Moscow would not want to jeopardize its use of former United States military bases in Vietnam.

But if Mr. Gorbachev is serious about better relations with Peking, he may have to do something about China's main contention with the Soviets: the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.

The Soviets could not have picked a better time to search for flexibility on Hanoi's part.

The death in July of Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Le Duan and the coming party congress have left Vietnam in its most crucial and vulnerable transition since the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969.

The last two congresses -- one a year after the end of the Vietnam war in 1975 and one in 1982 -- saw increasing liberalization of an economy managed by an increasingly aging leadership.

Le Duan's successor, Truong Chinh, age 79, is a member of that old guard, but his steward ship as party general secretary is considered to be that of caretaker until the congress, when a younger group of leaders is expected to take over.

The long-awaited congress has been expected to come in December. But some diplomats and analysts now wonder if internal debates within the Vietnamese leadership might delay the meeting yet again.

Those debates normally focus on how far Vietnam can accommodate private enterprise and decentralized control of the economy without loss of party control or without stretching Marxist ideology into new linguistic realms.

The debates erupted last spring, when eight top economic technocrats were dismissed. Failure to improve a weak economy has dogged the leadership. Inflation has returned in force after last year's drastic currency devaluation.

Black market rates for Vietnam's currency have risen by a third in just the past few months. Visitors to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) report that shops in the past year have begun to post prices in American dollars.

``The average citizen wants change badly,'' says a Western diplomat stationed in Hanoi.

Signs of new party flexibility and sensitivity are showing, however. The leadership promised to cut the bureaucracy by a fifth last spring.

And earlier this year, the party newspaper, Dhan Nan (``The People''), began to run humorous political cartoons, poking fun at such things as selling gasoline on the black market.

But the real test will come at the congress. Diplomats will be able to make an assessment of Vietnam's general direction by seeing whether younger, reform-minded leaders from the south and outlying provinces are brought into the leadership this December. The best example of a southern leader who could be tapped for a top post is Ho Chi Minh City party chief Nguyen Van Linh, who was close to Le Duan.

The success of some leaders in managing the southern economy -- where ``socialist construction'' clashes most heavily with the lingering private enterprise of the pre-1975 period -- could be their ticket to the top in Hanoi. Hanoi's hard-liners will be keeping close watch on the reformists in southern Vietnam, a number of Western observers say.

One prominent Western diplomat in contact with Hanoi's leaders contends that the ascendency of younger, reformist leaders will, over time, lead to serious consideration about the economic drain of maintaining an estimated 120,000 to 140,000 Vietnamese troops in neighboring Cambodia.

``Cambodia will be the issue within a year after the congress,'' he says. ``A new crop of leaders who did not work with Ho Chi Minh will be freer to ask questions about Vietnam's purpose in Indochina.''

But, he adds, the Soviets misread the level of nationalism within the Vietnamese leadership if they plan to pressure Hanoi into a settlement with China over the Cambodia question.

``Hanoi will just tell Gorbachev to go pump sand,'' the Western diplomat says. And Vietnam may begin to seek closer ties with the US, Japan, and noncommunist neighbors.

In the meantime, he adds, ``Gorbachev is just jingling the big-power triangles to see what kind of new sound he can get.'' The fact that no definite response has come from Peking may mean that China could also be waiting for Vietnam to make its leadership changes.

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