Vietnam: trying ping-pong diplomacy? Hanoi appears to test ties with Soviets as Moscow woos Peking

Vietnam recently sent a ping-pong team to China for an Asian table-tennis championship. Ping-pong helped open up China to the United States in 1971, and Hanoi may be hoping for the same. Its team was led by an official from the Vietnam-China Friendship Association. A few days earlier, on Oct. 1, both Vietnamese leader Truong Chinh (an old friend of China) and Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach congratulated China on the 37th anniversary of its founding as a communist state. And last Tuesday, a Vietnamese minister without portfolio, Vo Dong Giang, told the UN General Assembly that his nation is ``ready to turn to a new chapter'' in normalizing relations with China.

Such gestures indicate Hanoi's new concern about renewing old ties with Peking nearly eight years after Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia triggered a 17-day border war with China and contining hostility. Some Western observers say Vietnam wants to avoid being caught in a big-power deal between its main ally, the Soviet Union, and giant northern neighbor, China.

The Vietnamese, these observers say, do not know just how serious the Soviets are about rapprochement with China and may be testing the diplomatic waters by making some overtures of their own. Hanoi does not want to be pressured by Moscow into a political solution for Cambodia that favors the Peking-backed Cambodian resistance leaders.

Since the July 28 ``Asian initiative'' speech of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Moscow has stepped up its attempts to improve ties with China. The main obstacle to better relations, Peking says, is Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, and China has given Moscow little encouragement besides allowing some top East European leaders to visit Peking.

Western analysts note a new strain in Vietnam's official statements about its Soviet ties since the Gorbachev speech, and diplomats in Hanoi find Vietnam's leaders increasingly intrigued by China's political and economic liberalization.

The Soviets appear to be hunting for a solution for Cambodia. One idea that interests some Soviet regional diplomats is a coalition between Cambodian resistance leaders and the Vietnamese-backed government of Heng Samrin in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

Mr. Samrin is a former associate of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge is one of three groups constituting Cambodia's anti-Vietnamese resistance coalition, the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK).

Last week, Samrin, who was in Moscow supposedly ``on holiday,'' met with Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet President and former foreign minister. The Soviet official news agency Tass reported that there was ``an exchange of opinions'' on how to implement the initiatives proposed in Gorbachev's July 28 speech. This may indicate that Moscow is putting pressure directly on Cambodia to come up with its own solution. Gromyko told Samrin, Tass says, that the Soviets would serve as ``serious interlocutors,'' since they stress a political solution to ``problems existing in Southeast Asia.''

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said last month that the Soviets must ``encourage'' Vietnam to withdraw its troops from Cambodia before he would agree to a summit with Gorbachev. Also last month, Deng reaffirmed his nation's ``firm, unconditional, and permanent'' support for the exiled CGDK in a meeting with its leaders: President, Prince Norodom Sihanouk; Prime Minister Son Sann; and Foreign Minister Khieu Samphan. China is the main military supplier of the CGDK, especially the Khmer Rouge.

Meanwhile, China continues its public bashing of Hanoi. Last week, China's official news agency reported that a Chinese journalist visiting the Vietnamese border became a combat hero when he killed two invading Vietnamese. Then last Tuesday, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang said the dispute with Vietnam ``is a struggle between justice and evil.''

At the same time, China hints at indirect talks with Hanoi. Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian told Indonesian Foreign Minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja he would like to discuss the possibility of a Cambodia settlement. Mr. Mochtar has been the main contact with Hanoi for the six-nation, anticommunist Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which backs the CGDK. In addition, China's Hu Yaobang said Tuesday that his country is ready to deal with Vietnam ``in a generous manner.''

But, Mr. Hu stressed, Hanoi must first withdraw its troops and then ``we'll bury the hatchet and resume the traditional friendship between the two countries.'' Vietnam says it plans to withdraw its troops from Cambodia in 1990. But it warned China last month that the situation in Cambodia is ``irreversible,'' and its ties with the present Cambodia government are ``unshakable.''

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