China's harsh rejection of Vietnam's offer of talks this week was a forceful reminder that tensions across the two countries' rugged border will not ease much until the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia comes to an end. Vietnam had declared that it was ready ``to enter negotiations anywhere with China at any level.'' The phrase was very similar to one used by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in his July 28 speech on Soviet policy in Asia -- a speech warmly endorsed by Vietnam.
``The Soviet Union is prepared -- at any time and at any level -- to discuss with China questions of additional measures for creating an atmosphere of good neighborliness,'' the Soviet leader said.
China welcomed Mr. Gorbachev's remarks, but rejected Vietnam's overture. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official said Wednesday that any talks between China and Vietnam aimed at improving relations can come only after Hanoi withdraws all of its troops from Cambodia. (China backs the communist Khmer Rouge, one of the three factions of Cambodia's anti-Vietnamese resistance, the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, or CGDK.)
That was China's official response to a communiqu'e issued in Hanoi on Monday after a meeting of the foreign ministers of Vietnam, Laos, and the Vietnam-backed government in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. The communiqu'e said Vietnam would pull all its troops out of Cambodia by 1990.
A commentary in the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, the People's Daily, added that Vietnam's rejection of an eight-point proposal for settling the Cambodian question was a ``miscalculation.''
The proposal was announced last March in Peking by the CGDK's leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. It includes a call for a two-stage withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia; a four-party caretaker government, made up of the CGDK's three factions and the Vietnam-backed government in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh; and free elections supervised by a UN observer group.
Just as China asserted that there was nothing new in the Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia communiqu'e, so observers in Peking say there is nothing new in China's response to it -- except the tone.
Western and Asian diplomats offer several interpretations of Peking's tough language.
First, they see it as a reassurance to Washington, Tokyo, and Southeast Asian capitals that China has not abandoned its regional foreign policy objectives, despite its cautiously positive response to Gorbachev's highly conciliatory speech.
The diplomats say that China's leaders are skeptical of the Soviet initiatives, but want to encourage them. At the same time, the Chinese want to tell their friends -- especially the ``little nations'' in Southeast Asia -- that checking Vietnam's influence in the region is a high priority in Peking, according to one Asian diplomat.
In the Foreign Ministry statement, the diplomats say, China made special reference to Laos, welcoming its offer -- made in the communiqu'e -- to normalize relations. There are an estimated 40,000 Vietnamese troops in Laos, which also shares a border with China, and diplomats reason that China wants to encourage more independence from a neighbor that is under Vietnam's thumb.
The second interpretation gleaned from Western and Asian diplomats is that China's response to Vietnam is part of the bargaining process in China's dialogue with the Soviet Union.
China still acts as if the Soviets can order the Vietnamese out of Cambodia, a diplomat observed, even though the Soviets have insisted that is beyond their control. ``In the past, everyone thought the key to [Cambodia] was in Moscow. But now the focus has shifted to Hanoi,'' a diplomat said.
However, Soviet influence in Vietnam can still be measured in terms of military aid that exceeds $2 billion a year, sources say.
The third interpretation is that Peking is putting pressure on Vietnam at a critical time: after the death last month of longtime leader Le Duan and before new leaders emerge at the coming sixth party congress.
According to an Asian diplomat, Chinese officials have said privately that they think there are a number of people in Hanoi who are friendly to Chinese interests in Indochina, but that they have not been free to speak out under the interim leadership.
China does not want to appear more conciliatory until it sees who takes over from Truong Chinh as general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the diplomat said. Hanoi may announce new leaders at the party congress, slated for December.