Quiet Reaction to China Belies Fears


CHINA'S internal turmoil has drawn a worried but quiet response from its southern neighbors, who have been vulnerable in the past to changes in Asia's giant. Many Southeast Asian nations had been improving ties with China before the June 3-4 massacre in Beijing and its shift in leadership. Many had hoped China would soon stop aiding Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Cambodia.

Now both Cambodia's future and its bilateral ties are uncertain as the regional leaders look for shifts in China's foreign policy.

Student groups in Indonesia and Thailand protested the Beijing massacre. But official reaction has been noticeably subdued as each Southeast Asian nation wants to keep whatever business deals and good relations it had with China. Also, some nations, such as Indonesia and Burma, face their own protests for democracy.

``Our friendly relations with China are not at issue here,'' says Philippines President Corazon Aquino. Communist guerrillas in the Philippines, who built their cause on the ideas of Mao Zedong, had little to say. ``We don't meddle in other countries' affairs,'' said one Communist Party spokesman. Until the 1970s, China supported many of the communist movements in Southeast Asia.

Some nations hope to benefit from China's woes by luring away that country's foreign investors. ``My clients are asking for opportunities other than China,'' says a Hong Kong investment adviser.

Indonesia, the region's largest nation, indicated that its move begun earlier this year to normalize ties with China will not be halted.

Bangkok's muted comments have angered many Thais, but officials say relations with China were already difficult over recent Thai moves to slowly end support for Khmer Rouge fighters operating on the border with Cambodia. But China's military supplies still appear to be reaching the guerrillas through Thailand.

If Beijing's changes result in a tougher policy on Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia - which Hanoi promises to end by Sept. 30 - talks for a political settlement could be set back. Also, China's role as a big-power guarantor for a Cambodia pact may be in doubt.

Vietnam says its troop withdrawal will be on schedule, despite China's troubles. But its news reports on China have been guarded, expressing regret only at the loss of life. Vietnamese officials have counted on ``liberal'' leaders in Beijing to end China's antagonism over the Soviet influence and military presence in Vietnam and the occupation of Cambodia.

Talks to improve Sino-Vietnamese relations began this year. Beijing's changes could have strengthened anti-Vietnamese hardliners. But also, Hanoi has been anticipating a shift in China away from the West toward better ties with Soviet-allied nations.

Reports reaching diplomats in Bangkok show that Vietnam has temporarily halted a large demobilization of its Army in the wake of uncertainty about China's next moves. In March 1988, China's Navy took over six small islands claimed by Vietnam in the South China Sea, killing dozens.

Vietnam's own small democracy movement is opposed by elderly Communist Party leaders. A move toward ``pluralism'' would ``only further complicate things,'' said party leader Tran Trong Tan in an article last month. ``The attacking blow that the enemies [the West] are aiming at socialism today is to inject into the body of socialism the venom of counter-revolutionary pluralism.''

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