THE United States and six Southeast Asian allies are sidestepping differences and making a new bid for peace in embattled Cambodia. At a sometimes testy meeting that ended yesterday, the US and its partners averted confrontation over a role in Cambodia for resurging Khmer Rouge guerrillas and renewed efforts for a settlement. The major dilemma centers on the Khmer Rouge, which has scored ``significant'' military gains recently, said US Secretary of State James Baker III.
Mr. Baker and ASEAN officials called for a new flurry of diplomacy to mold the bickering Cambodian factions into an interim supreme national council. The council would take over the UN seat now held by the Cambodian resistance when the UN General Assembly reconvenes at the end of September.
The US also said it is considering direct contact with the Phnom Penh government that was installed after Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The guerrilla group is blamed for the death of more than 1 million Cambodians during the 1970s.
The ASEAN initiative follows a recent US policy reversal on Cambodia.
Stung by congressional critics, the Bush administration decided to withdraw recognition of the Khmer Rouge-dominated Cambodian resistance and to open talks with Vietnam, hoping that these steps would lead to United Nations supervised elections.
The US about-face jolted the Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Brunei, which backed the Cambodian rebel coalition in 1982 and had denounced US plans to isolate the Khmer Rouge.
More intractable is the bitter standoff over forcibly returning more than 100,000 Vietnamese boat people sheltered in some of the six countries comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN).
Weary of the refugee burden, the Southeast Asian countries threaten to end temporary refuge for the Vietnamese not considered political refugees. Malaysia has already pushed off more than 8,700 boat people from its shores in the past year. Singapore refuses to let most refugees land.
The US, which along with Vietnam opposes involuntary repatriation, conceded support for a UN proposal to give those refused refugee status for three months, during which time officials will try to persuade them to return voluntarily. However, the move failed to satisfy the ASEAN foreign ministers, who rejected the US concessions as inadequate.
``The US is deporting people every day. How is Vietnam different?'' asks a senior ASEAN diplomat. ``Vietnam is hiding behind US opposition to returning those who refuse to go back.''
Facing mounting criticism from the US Congress, the Bush administration said it would pull diplomatic backing for the rebel coalition to prevent new Khmer Rouge rule.
However, US officials, who indicated that overt and covert Western aid to the noncommunist resistance would continue, despite the switch in policy, said the proposed interim council could include Khmer Rouge representatives acting as individuals.
``If the Khmer Rouge participates in the [council], it is the view of the US and others as well that there should be no role for anyone who wants to pursue power through the battlefield instead of the ballot box,'' Baker said at a press conference yesterday.
Some ASEAN officials maintain the US has pledged not to seek a confrontation and force a vote over the UN seat. However, others worry that failure to reconcile the Cambodian factions, particularly the Khmer Rouge could still bring the issue to a head.
``Everyone will be scrambling, because no one wants a big showdown at the UN,'' says a diplomat from Singapore, the most hard-line ASEAN member.
Analysts question whether the US, ASEAN, and other Western countries could do in two months what they have failed to do in years of negotiating.
Pivotal will be US talks with Vietnam scheduled to begin Aug. 6 in New York. Baker said that cooperation on Cambodia could lead to normalization of relations with Vietnam and a lifting of the US led economic embargo rooted in the US defeat in Southeast Asia 15 years ago.
Also crucial is China, the main supplier of weapons and aid to the Khmer Rouge. China has reaffirmed support for the Cambodian communist rebels, although Western diplomats say Beijing is ready to compromise if Cambodians form the national council and allow a temporary UN administration.
``It is our view that China would like to see the resolution of the problem as the other side [UN Security Council permanent members] would,'' the US official says.
ASEAN officials said they would continue supporting temporary asylum for Vietnamese, but did not hide growing anger at Washington's refusal to set a date for resettling or repatriating boat people in Southeast Asia.
Washington will consider a European Community proposal to establish Western financed camps for returning refugees in Vietnam, a US official said.
Ali Alatas, the foreign minister of Indonesia, urged further American moves to ease the refugee burden, which he said ``is getting almost unbearable.''
Indonesia has been under growing pressure with a new influx of refugees turned away by Malaysia and Singapore and of boat people fleeing Cambodia.
``We recognize the US has moved on its position,'' says Mr. Alatas. ``We appreciate these moves but we at ASEAN think they have not gone far enough.''