Moscow's Asia specialists, one of them says, were closely watching the fate of two Vietnamese leaders at last week's Communist Party Congress in Hanoi. They wanted to see what would happen to Deputy Premier Vo Van Kiet, the moving force behind economic reforms, and Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach. If the two men emerged strengthened from the congress, the analyst said, the chances of far-reaching economic reform and d'etente with China - two policies Moscow is eager to see adopted - would also be strengthened.
They were happy with what they saw. The changeover at the top, with the retirement of Vietnam's three leaders, was more than some Soviet observers expected. Foreign Minister Thach was promoted from alternate (nonvoting) status to that of full Politburo member. This may have been something of a relief to Moscow. Mr. Thach came under fire in his own ministry shortly before the party congress, a Soviet source said. He was criticized, the Soviet said, for wanting to pursue a more ``flexible and effective'' foreign policy.
Moscow was equally pleased with what happened to Deputy Premier Kiet. He has been under attack for the last few years by those within the party who feared that his economic policies would allow a resurgence of capitalism.
But Mr. Kiet came out of the congress in a strong position. He and other former senior officials from Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon), which has been in the forefront of reform since 1980, now appear to be playing key roles in the new Politburo. These officials include Nguyen Van Linh, now party general secretary, and Mai Chi Tho - a school friend of Nguyen Co Thach and the brother of outgoing Politburo member Le Duc Tho. Kiet worked closely with Mr. Linh and the two Tho brothers during and after the Vietnam war. Many of the leading ideological conservatives, on the other hand, were dropped.
All this is heartening news to Moscow, but there is no guarantee that there will be any immediate improvement either in the Vietnamese economy or in its relations with China. Many of the economic reforms have been under discussion since the late 1970s. Hanoi faces enormous problems, such as a lack of trained cadres, a weak infrastructure, and a very poor transportation system.
D'etente with China is fraught with even more difficulty. Yegor Ligachev, Moscow's representative at the congress and No. 2 man in the Kremlin, repeated with some force Moscow's interest in seeing improved relations between Hanoi and Peking. He received tepid applause.
And it is far from certain that the new leadership will be willing to change its policy on Cambodia, the main obstacle to improved Vietnamese-Chinese ties.
It can be argued that the present leaders have more on-ground experience in Cambodia than their predecessors. Linh, Mai Chi Tho, Kiet, and Le Duc Anh, a close colleague of Kiet and possibly the next defense minister, have all been involved in the prosecution of the war in Cambodia. None of them have so far shown any sign of unhappiness with Hanoi's present policy, and their personal involvement arguably gives them more of a stake in maintaining current policy.
Mr. Ligachev was careful to stress several times Moscow's unhappiness about Vietnam's wasteful use of aid. Total Soviet assistance to Vietnam is estimated to exceed $1.2 billion a year. Around one-third of this is thought to be military aid.
But there is no indication Moscow will cut its aid. Vietnam is too good a strategic investment. Access to the Vietnamese military bases of Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay has given the Soviets a foothold in an area where, 10 years ago, they were strategically insignificant. The US's position in the Philippines - where it maintains major air and naval bases - by contrast still seems precarious. The Soviets realize this and make it clear they want Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay as long as possible.