WITH the Gulf war over, the United States is turning its attention to other parts of the world - among them Southeast Asia, the cause of so much past American anguish. New US diplomatic activity is aimed at both Vietnam and Cambodia. By holding out the carrot of improved relations, US officials hope to prod Vietnam into helping restart stalled peace talks on ending the Cambodian civil war.
The three Cambodian resistance factions, including the infamous Khmer Rouge, have accepted a United Nations Security Council plan that lays out the way to free elections. The Cambodian government, installed and backed by Vietnam, has objected to aspects of the plan it says could help the Khmer Rouge return to power.
"A comprehensive political settlement is now within reach if the Cambodian parties and others, including Vietnam, will cooperate," Richard Solomon, assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs, told Congress.
US diplomats conveyed this message in rare, high-level contacts last week with both Vietnamese and Cambodian government representatives. Assistant Secretary Solomon met Vietnam's ambassador to the UN, Trinh Xuan Lang, in New York; the US envoy to Laos met with his counterpart in Vientiane.
The road maps toward normalization laid out in these meetings did not represent new US policy so much as detailed implementation timetables. The US envisions a four-step process. Phase one would begin when an international peace agreement on Cambodia is signed, and include the start of formal US talks with Vietnam on normalization. Phase two would kick in at the beginning of a cease-fire, and include a partial lifting of the US trade embargo against Vietnam. After the Cambodian peace process had progres sed six months, the US and Vietnam could exchange diplomatic offices. The final phase would follow Cambodian elections, and bring full diplomatic and economic relations between the US and both Vietnam and Cambodia.
For Vietnam, improved relations with the US could be a significant incentive. Economic support from the Soviet Union has been substantially reduced, crippling an already weak Vietnamese economy. To help ease this problem, Vietnamese officials have been seeking an end to the long-standing trade embargo, and US support for international loans to Vietnam.
The question is whether this incentive will be enough to get Vietnam and its Phnom Penh allies to go along with the UN Cambodia peace plan, which has been in the works since an international conference held in Paris in the late summer of 1989.
The plan calls for a UN-sponsored cease-fire, creation of an interim Cambodia government, and eventual elections. So far, the regime of Phnom Penh Prime Minister Hun Sen has objected to the dismantlement of his administration, the demobilization of his troops, and the extent of Khmer Rouge participation in the process.
The Khmer Rouge pose policy problems for the US as well. Though US officials have long said they oppose the return to power of the notorious group, in the past they have recognized and supported the resistance coalition, which includes two noncommunist factions along with the Khmer Rouge. Under pressure from Congress, the Bush administration last year dropped its official recognition of the coalition, denying it a seat at the UN. Covert aid to the noncommunist factions also was ended, though overt "nonl ethal" aid of some $20 million a year continued.
Congress mandated that even this aid should end if the noncommunist factions had direct military cooperation with the Khmer Rouge. Recent reports that such cooperation has indeed occurred are being taken seriously by the administration, and have resulted in a freeze on new aid deliveries while an investigation is under way.
Administration officials insist that a permanent severing of the aid pipeline to the noncommunist resistance would be a disaster. "It would undercut the very people that we've been supporting for a decade, the people who however imperfectly seek the kinds of values the kind of solution that we are interested in," said Assistant Secretary Solomon.
The administration position is that the ballot box is the best weapon against the Khmer Rouge - that they will lose free Cambodian elections, denying them of any legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Many members of Congress, on the other hand, insist that by even allowing the Khmer Rouge to participate in the run-up to elections the US would be abetting the resurgence of a group ruthless enough to simply seize power if things don't turn out their way.