In the five years since Vietnam invaded Kampuchea to depose Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and install its own client regime, the situation in Kampuchea has settled into what is widely viewed as a long-term stalemate. Despite strong international condemnation, and ongoing guerrilla resistance from the Khmer Rouge and other nationalist groups, Vietnam has retained close control over Kampuchea through its puppet leader, Heng Samrin, and has shown little apparent interest in either a military withdrawal or a political compromise settlement. U.N. and other efforts to initiate peace talks have been fruitless, and the prospect of a long-term Vietnamese occupation has seemed virtually unavoidable.

On closer inspection, however, it may be premature to accept the current impasse in Kampuchea as permanent. Such a judgment neglects several significant dimensions of the problem-most importantly the consequences of the existing situation for Vietnam itself. Five years after the invasion, Vietnam is still bleeding. In addition to the 180,000 Vietnamese troops occupying Kampuchea, it has to bear the formidable costs of maintaining a 600,000-man military and militia force at and near the Sino-Vietnamese border. Its economy, which never really recovered from the dislocations of earlier wars, continues to stagnate. Deprived of international assistance (except from the Soviet bloc, Sweden, France and India), it has no realistic prospects of improving. Vietnam's gross domestic product (GDP) per capita decreased from $257 in 1978 to $189 in 1982, and after 40 years of war, malnutrition levels in Vietnam remain at extremely high levels. Economic scarcities and exposure to bourgeois lifestyles in the South have made the traditionally disciplined Vietnamese party cadres more susceptible to corruption from southern Vietnam. Several observers have noted the slow process of social and political deterioration in Vietnam.1 The long-term consequences of this could be very telling.

Inside Kampuchea, Vietnam still faces important challenges. The Vietnamese-installed satellite regime, unlike parallel regimes in Eastern Europe, or even Laos, remains shaky. As the Kampuchean nation recovers from the ravages of the Pol Pot years, when at least one million people died from starvation, forced labor and mass executions, Kampuchean nationalism is gradually beginning to resurface. Opposition to Vietnamese rule has now been coordinated in the form of the coalition government of Democratic Kampuchea, established in June 1982, where the posts of president, vice president and prime minister are held respectively by Norodom Sihanouk, Khieu Samphan and Son Sann. Sihanouk ruled the nation from 1953 to 1970, Son Sann, a former prime minister, leads the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) and Khieu Samphan represents the remnants of Pol Pot's government. Pol Pot remains the military commander of the Khmer Rouge forces. Even if Vietnam wins most of the military battles, as the U.S. Army did in Vietnam, it is losing the political battles in Kampuchea. Perhaps this explains the desperate move to bring Vietnamese settlers into Kampuchea, a move that will inflame Kampuchean nationalist sentiment even more.

Conventional wisdom in the West has tended to say that Vietnam will stay the course in Kampuchea. It would be foolish to deny the unique Vietnamese record for tenacity. Yet, even the best long-distance runner eventually gets exhausted. He may be prepared to run the extra mile if the end is in sight. This is what kept North Vietnam going, especially after 1968, when its leaders saw the clear erosion of domestic support for the war in the United States. This time, as Indochinese history produces yet another irony, the Vietnamese leaders have to ask themselves: is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

It is this new combination of political, economic and military realities that makes the states of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) guardedly optimistic that Vietnam will accept a compromise negotiated settlement in Kampuchea. Those states, which include Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, are obliged to sustain the combination of pressures on Vietnam (any relaxation of pressures may only prolong Vietnam's agony). Yet the door has to be kept open to Vietnam to negotiate a settlement.

The ASEAN states have consistently said that they do not seek a defeat or humiliation for Vietnam. Vietnam's security interests will have to be taken into consideration in any Kampuchean settlement. The main theme/purpose of this essay is to state that such a settlement, in spite of the obvious practical difficulties, is both probable as well as feasible. Unlike the other trouble spots of the globe, the main initiatives to resolve the Kampuchean problem have emerged from the region. Since the ASEAN states will have to live with the consequences of these initiatives, they can ill-afford to sustain any illusions about this problem.

Vietnam's invasion of Kampuchea2 pulled it firmly into the Sino-Soviet dispute; its withdrawal from Kampuchea could extricate it. A full resolution of this dimension of the problem would almost inevitably require the participation of the United States. The rewards for the United States would be clear: It could pave the way for a historic reconciliation between Vietnam and the United States, help to close a bitter chapter in American history, gradually heal a painful sore in the American psyche and create another region of the world where U.S. interests would be safeguarded. Such a rapprochement would be welcomed in the region as it would increase the incentives for Vietnam to become a more peaceful member of the Southeast Asian community.

If the prospect of a peaceful Kampuchean settlement seems so unreal in today's context, it is important to remind oneself of the recent history of Indochina. Who in 1973 (only ten years ago) could have predicted that Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea would fall to the communists in two years? Who in 1975 could have predicted that Vietnam would invade Kampuchea? Who in 1975 could have predicted that China and Vietnam, as close as "lips and teeth" during the war with the United States, could fall out and clash militarily? Indeed all three events occurred in a time span of less than four years. Perhaps if underlying trends, rather than surface developments, had been analyzed more closely, one might have anticipated some of these developments. The underlying trends in Indochina today suggest that the time may be ripening for new developments.


In January 1979, as the U.N. Security Council was convened in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea, the Vietnamese Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Mr. Ha Van Lau (now Deputy Foreign Minister), told Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Mr. Tommy Koh, in the corridors of the United Nations, that the ASEAN states should not bother with the Kampuchea issue. In two weeks, he confidently said, the world would have forgotten the Kampuchean problem. Clearly, Vietnam envisaged its invasion to follow the lines of the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia: a quick blitzkrieg operation, destruction of all resistance, rapid establishment of a fait accompli that would survive the (brief) world condemnation. Given the growing awareness in 1978 of Pol Pot's record, the Vietnamese might have even counted upon some world sympathy and support.

To the surprise of all observers and participants, the international condemnation of Vietnam brought together a remarkable collection of states, including the majority of nonaligned states. Until the invasion of Kampuchea, the Vietnamese had become accustomed to being lionized in Third World forums for their "anti-imperialist" credentials. They were therefore unprepared for the diplomatic isolation that followed. Indeed Vietnam's insensitivity to world opinion and its remarkably maladroit performance in various U.N. debates have led to a surprising phenomenon. The U.N. votes against Vietnam have increased each year. On October 20, 1983, Vietnam made a stunning concession by deciding not to formally challenge the credentials of Democratic Kampuchea at the United Nations. This decision revealed that, notwithstanding the Vietnamese leaders' record for tenacity, they do have a good understanding of political realities. This latest development provides new hope that a compromise Kampuchean settlement may be feasible.

Vietnam may have made an even bigger miscalculation on China's response to its invasion of Kampuchea. Having signed the Peace and Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union in early November 1978, Vietnam may have expected an angry response from the People's Republic but probably only a rhetorical one. Instead Vietnam suffered a major invasion from the P.R.C. in February 1979. This invasion may not have inflicted lasting physical damage on Vietnam, and Vietnam was not forced to withdraw any of its forces from Kampuchea. The subsequent Vietnamese military buildup along the Sino-Vietnamese border may have even tilted the military balance at the border in favor of Vietnam and reduced the credibility of any Chinese threat to inflict a "second punishment" on Vietnam. All this would, however, miss the crucial point: the P.R.C. has forced Vietnam to factor in Chinese military retaliation as a cost that Vietnam may have to pay some time in the future. Even more significant, the Chinese invasion has left a deep psychological impression on the Vietnamese leaders. Unlike the French or the Americans, the Chinese are never going to withdraw from the border or the region. As one Chinese leader is reported to have remarked: in confronting China, the Vietnamese have picked up a huge boulder and dropped it on their own feet.

Both sympathetic and unsympathetic observers of Vietnam have acknowledged the terrible economic situation within Vietnam. Paul Kattenburg, an experienced and sympathetic American observer, visited Vietnam in early 1983 and reported the following:

The economic picture in Vietnam is dismal. Vietnamese experts frequently stated or implied a need for foreign assistance and did so with a sense of urgency. Vietnam has become one of South East Asia's poorest countries. It has the lowest level of nutrition. It has a staggering international debt, to both Soviet and Western lenders. Soviet economic assistance has become crucial to Vietnamese economic planning, and Soviet experts have penetrated virtually all sectors of Vietnam's economy.

Indeed Kattenburg, who was stationed in Hanoi as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in the early 1950s, remarked that apart from some "minor tokens of development" (referring to sandals worn by previously barefoot people and the widespread use of bicycles), he "could find little to distinguish the Hanoi of 1983 from that of 1952."3

It would be salutary here to compare Vietnam's economic record with that of the non-communist ASEAN states (once described as the "dominoes" of Southeast Asia). In contrast to the continuing process of social and economic deterioration in Vietnam, "the ASEAN countries have been experiencing what can be described as a peaceful and orderly revolution. Dramatic changes have occurred in their political, social and cultural life."4 Thailand now enjoys a per capita income of $800, compared to Vietnam's per capita income of $189; Thailand's gross national product (GNP) is larger than that of Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea combined. Some other statistical comparisons may highlight Vietnam's unusual condition. ASEAN's combined population is 275 million, five times that of Vietnam; ASEAN's combined GNP amounts to over $200 billion, more than 20 times that of Vietnam. Yet, Vietnam alone maintains over a million men under arms, larger than all five ASEAN armies combined. It is not surprising that Vietnam's economy should continue to deteriorate. Chinese leaders today are clearly aware of how many precious years were wasted in the decades of social and political turmoil their country had to undergo under Mao. Vietnam has not even begun the process of catching up that China has undertaken. Can Vietnam afford to remain economically backward in a region that promises to be one of the fastest growing areas of the world?

The social costs that Vietnam is paying are harder to document but no less real in their impact. A recent analyst notes:

Hanoi's ability to feed, clothe, and provide medical care for the people of Vietnam continued to fall far short of need in 1982. While rice production rose to nearly 16 million tons in 1982, significant reduction in grain imports in 1981-82 precluded marked improvement in supply availability. Foreign visitors reported that medical care in Vietnam continued to deteriorate in 1982, and illness among refugees was widespread. The incidence of tuberculosis and malaria has risen markedly, particularly in the rural south because of the unavailability of medicine, underdosing when medicines were available, overextension of the medical infrastructure, and the prevalence of malnutrition.5

There are also an increasing number of stories of maladministration, indiscipline and corruption among Vietnamese party cadres.

None of this should be taken to mean that the Vietnamese regime is anywhere near collapsing. Few countries, communist or noncommunist, can match the Vietnamese leaders' record of cohesion and unity in the face of struggle. Vietnam is run by a group of hardy and tough men. They have fought their battles against the French and the Americans with great skill (albeit at a great cost to Vietnam). Unfortunately, however, many of their political perceptions, convictions and views were forged in the 1930s and 1940s and, with the exception of accomplished diplomat and Politburo member Le Duc Tho, they have had little acquaintance with the outside world and the West. In the 1980s these leaders are grappling with problems that they had never encountered before. The Vietnamese leaders will not be the first to persist with policies which were once successful but which would no longer work in changed circumstances. Theodore H. White quotes Hu Qiaomu on Mao's old-age policies:

"It was as if the law of inertia took over," said Hu Qiaomu, once Mao's private secretary, today in the Politburo as spokesman of China's intellectuals. "He was speeding the train down the track. The train came to a bend because the terrain of China is different from what Mao thought. The train could not take the turn. It derailed."6

In difficult phases of the 1946-75 Indochina War, the Vietnamese leaders could still count on some tough military solution that could lead to the eventual withdrawal of the French and the Americans. Today, a military defeat of the P.R.C. is inconceivable. Inside Kampuchea, the resistance movements have grown stronger rather than weaker after five years of Vietnamese occupation. The absence of a military solution that Vietnam could turn to leaves Vietnam especially helpless as it watches itself losing the more crucial political struggle inside Kampuchea, in the international arena and perhaps at home within Vietnam.


Kampuchea (or, more accurately, Cambodia, as it has traditionally been called) is one of the oldest Southeast Asian states. Angkor Wat testifies to that. Its dated history can be traced back to the seventh century. In recent times, 80 years of French rule were followed by 17 years of Sihanouk, five years of Lon Nol, three years and nine months of Pol Pot and five years of Vietnamese rule. That's the historical setting in which one must see the impact of the Pol Pot era. The nation was badly beaten down, upwards of one million people were killed or died, but somehow the nation survived. In January 1979, the Vietnamese invasion came first as a welcome relief, allowing the nation to breathe a little more freely again. In the mid-1980s, as the painful years of Pol Pot's rule fade away gradually in Kampuchean memories, the nation will again remember its longer history.

The conflict between Kampuchea and Vietnam goes back a long way. Almost every Kampuchean knows that the delta regions of southern Vietnam used to belong to Kampuchea. In spite of the obvious ideological differences between the three nationalist coalition leaders, Sihanouk, Son Sann and Khieu Samphan, there is no disagreement in their perceptions of Kampuchean history and the growing encroachment of Vietnam upon Kampuchean territory. Most Kampuchean leaders today are painfully aware that if Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea becomes permanent, the Kampuchean nation could fade away as an independent entity.

In this historic setting, it is hardly surprising that the Vietnamese should have great difficulties creating an effective satellite regime in Phnom Penh. The Heng Samrin regime could barely survive two weeks if the Vietnamese army withdrew. The only relatively forceful leader that the regime was able to produce, Pen Sovan, was removed when he began to disagree with the Vietnamese advisers. Heng Samrin remains a distant shadowy figure. A few younger energetic ministers like Hun Sen and Keo Chanda do make some sort of impression upon visiting foreigners, but the regime's political base is virtually nonexistent. Not only are all its leaders tarred by their Vietnamese ties, but an estimated one-third of them, including Heng Samrin, are crippled by also having been part of the Pol Pot regime.7

In contrast to the continued weakness of the Heng Samrin regime, all three resistance forces have grown in strength, especially in the last two years.8 Recent reports even suggest that Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces have gradually succeeded in recruiting more fighters. The reasons for this are still unclear. Perhaps memories of the Pol Pot years are being replaced by growing dissatisfaction with the Vietnamese presence. Perhaps it is because the Khmer Rouge forces, with an estimated 40,000 men, remain the largest, best equipped, and best trained single resistance effort. A Kampuchean refugee joining the Khmer Rouge is assured of clothes, shoes, a bowl of rice, rifle and ammunition. Neither Son Sann's nor Sihanouk's forces can guarantee this yet.

Still, Son Sann's KPNLF has reached the respectable level of 10,000-12,000 men, reasonably well armed and well trained. The Sihanoukists claim to have 5,000 men. They have been able to make deeper forays into Kampuchea from the Thai-Kampuchean border, and are gradually proving to be a great nuisance to the Vietnamese forces inside Kampuchea. The brutal Vietnamese attacks early this year on KPNLF camps along the Thai-Kampuchean border, including the terrorizing of the civilian population with artillery shelling, could be read as a Vietnamese recognition of the significance of the KPNLF. It can no longer be ignored. The KPNLF's capacity to grow is, however, crippled by low levels of assistance. Son Sann visited Washington, D.C. in September 1983 hoping to receive more American assistance. He left a disappointed man.

The Kampuchean resistance forces will probably never develop the strength or momentum to defeat the Vietnamese militarily in Kampuchea. Both Son Sann and Sihanouk have publicly admitted this. The main purpose of the resistance has been to deprive the Vietnamese of any legitimacy for their stay in Kampuchea, to act as a focus of Kampuchean nationalism and to increase the costs to Vietnam for its occupation. The classical theory of guerrilla warfare states that as long as guerrilla forces do not lose, they can be considered to be winning. If the resistance continues to grow in effectiveness, it would increase incentives for Vietnam to agree to a compromise settlement.

The Kampuchean resistance movements have been compared unfavorably with the Afghan insurgents. Certainly Kampuchea does not have the tradition of warrior tribes, well-armed, ceaselessly involved in internecine warfare. Left to its own devices, the Kampuchean population is likely to return to quieter agricultural pursuits. Kampuchea is blessed by a fertile land and a freshwater lake, Tonle Sap, that could provide enough fish for the entire Kampuchean population. (This incidentally may explain why most Vietnamese settlers have been located around the Tonle Sap.)

Ironically, this same Kampuchean "disadvantage" when compared with the Afghans is also its strength when a compromise settlement is envisaged. A Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan would leave any successor Kabul regime with great difficulties in controlling the countryside or governing the population. Unlike Lebanon, to cite another contrast, the Kampuchean population is relatively homogenous, both in ethnic and religious terms. The Kampuchean population is therefore more likely to accept an effective Kampuchean regime in Phnom Penh (unless of course it resorts to Pol Pot's methods of rule).

By creating a small, efficient resistance organization, staffed mainly by educated Kampucheans, Son Sann has proved that the educated and trained Kampucheans have not been totally decimated in the 1970s. Some of them have sacrificed a comfortable emigré life to return to the harsh border conditions. They exist in sufficient numbers to man the basic administrative structure of the state that would be created if the Vietnamese withdrew. Contrary to popular belief, there need not be chaos or anarchy if the Vietnamese withdraw.

In exile, Sihanouk has proved to be a powerful symbol of Kampuchean nationalism. He has played a forceful role in destroying Vietnamese credibility in the Third World. The recent Vietnamese decision not to challenge Democratic Kampuchea's U.N. credentials was in part at least an acknowledgment of Sihanouk's effectiveness as president of Democratic Kampuchea. If he returns to Phnom Penh, Sihanouk could prove to be an even greater unifying factor, perhaps telling the Kampuchean population that they may have finally emerged from the full cycle of horrors they have witnessed since his removal in 1970, barely 13 years ago.

Notwithstanding the criticisms that have been made of Sihanouk, there is virtually no other Kampuchean leader who is so closely identified as a symbol of the Kampuchean nation. Son Sann lacks Sihanouk's charisma but, contrary to superficial impressions, is wily and shrewd. He is also scrupulously honest, dedicated, and most important of all, has succeeded in creating an organization manned by talented and dedicated Kampucheans. There have been many historical differences between Sihanouk and Son Sann, some resolved, some unresolved, but if the two of them were to return together to Phnom Penh, each providing strengths that the other lacks, a viable regime could be created. There will be bickering, even some bitter acrimony between the followers of these two leaders, but since they have survived together in a coalition government with the Khmer Rouge for over 18 months, the prospects of them working together successfully in Phnom Penh are even greater.

One of the most widely shared fears about Kampuchea is the nightmarish scenario of the Khmer Rouge sweeping into control if Vietnam decides to withdraw its forces. Certainly a precipitate Vietnamese withdrawal could result in that happening, but such a withdrawal is almost inconceivable. Having invested so much in its Kampuchean venture, Vietnam is not likely to withdraw totally without its minimal security needs being met. The return of the Khmer Rouge would create precisely the sort of situation that triggered off the Vietnamese invasion in December 1978: a hostile military presence along the Kampuchean-Vietnamese border, a rapid military buildup and an increased Chinese presence. For virtually similar reasons, in addition to the possible horrible consequences for the Kampuchean population, the ASEAN states would find such a situation difficult to accept.

The main features of a compromise Kampuchean settlement are therefore not difficult to discover: a gradual phased withdrawal of Vietnamese forces (carried out in harmony with a planned introduction of interim arrangements, including an international peacekeeping force, to ensure law and order); disarmament of all Khmer factions; the formation of an interim administration to manage the country with international assistance; and finally free elections held under U.N. supervision. Kampuchea will have to accept the status of a neutral state. The details of such arrangements may not be easily agreed to but once the key principles are agreed to, and, more crucially, if all the key parties, especially ASEAN, Vietnam and China, find it in their interests to respect the agreement, the arrangements will eventually fall into place.

The main guarantee that all parties will need is that Kampuchea should not quickly disintegrate into anarchy or chaos: that is the crucial role that Sihanouk and Son Sann will have to play-quickly recreate a structure that could hold. The inclusion, in the interim administration, of some Kampucheans now serving in the Khmer Rouge or Heng Samrin regimes should not be surprising: the Kampucheans among themselves will know which figures are acceptable and which are not. Both Sihanouk and Son Sann have stressed the need for national reconciliation policies following a Vietnamese withdrawal. Slowly a Kampuchean consensus could emerge.

When the costs to Vietnam of its occupation of Kampuchea reach a sufficient level and if the forces of Sihanouk and Son Sann demonstrate a capacity to grow in strength and effectiveness, two key ingredients would have fallen into place for a settlement to emerge. The third ingredient, however, may be the most critical: an agreement among the three key powers of the Pacific region, i.e., China, the Soviet Union and the United States, not to block such a Kampuchean settlement.


The direct involvement of both the P.R.C. and the Soviet Union (contrasted to the indirect and somewhat distant involvement of the United States) would suggest that a Kampuchean settlement would require their participation. The P.R.C. is the main provider of military aid to the Kampuchean resistance forces and applies direct pressure on Vietnam at the Sino-Vietnamese border. A Kampuchean settlement without the involvement, or at least tacit approval, of the P.R.C. is not likely.

Curiously, the Vietnamese have made no attempts to suggest that the P.R.C. has no role to play in Kampuchea. Indeed, Vietnam argues that it is in Kampuchea primarily because of the "China threat." At times Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach has even suggested that the Kampuchean issue concerns only China and Vietnam. Of course, the Vietnamese have intended to use the "China threat" both as a propaganda weapon and as a justification for staying in Kampuchea. In so doing, however, they have acknowledged that the P.R.C.'s participation is necessary in any Kampuchean settlement.

It is difficult to figure out the real Vietnamese attitudes toward China. On the one hand, they have invaded and occupied Kampuchea in full awareness of the fact that this would bring down China's wrath upon Vietnam. Obviously the Vietnamese had calculated that they could, for the short term at least, live with Chinese anger. Yet, the Vietnamese have at the same time made relatively frantic efforts to get the Sino-Vietnamese talks going. Several times Vietnam has proposed a truce or cease-fire along the Sino-Vietnamese border. The Vietnamese have also tried to restart the Sino-Vietnamese talks, last held in September 1978, but the P.R.C. has steadfastly refused to do so. China has clearly calculated that time is on its side.

It would be wrong to infer from this, however, that the P.R.C. has been intransigent or unaccommodating on the question of a settlement for Kampuchea. One significant fact here is that the Chinese leaders have declared their willingness to accept the results of any free elections held in Kampuchea after a Vietnamese withdrawal. The P.R.C. could well have insisted upon the reinstallation of the Democratic Kampuchean government in Phnom Penh, which would be the correct "legal" position to adopt. Governments removed by foreign invading forces have the right to resume office when the invading forces leave. It is interesting and useful to note here that neither the U.N. resolutions on Kampuchea, nor the declaration of the International Conference on Kampuchea, have adopted this correct "legal" position-and China has endorsed all these resolutions and declarations.

Recently, Beijing Review came out with a 14-page analysis of the Kampuchean problem. The five-point plan enunciated by the P.R.C. Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 1, 1983 was reiterated as the Chinese position on the Kampuchean issue. The fifth point is especially crucial:

(5) China seeks no self-interest on the question of Kampuchea. China is willing to refrain from any form of interference in the internal affairs of Kampuchea, to respect the independence, neutrality and non-aligned status of Kampuchea, and to respect the result of the Kampuchea people's choice made through a genuinely free-election to be held under U.N. supervision.9

Another significant aspect of the five-point plan is the Chinese claim that normalization and improvement of Sino-Vietnamese relations would follow the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Kampuchea. The P.R.C. could, for example, have included the abrogation of the Soviet-Vietnamese Peace Treaty, the removal of Soviet military facilities from Vietnam or the reduction of Soviet-Vietnamese ties as additional conditions for normalization.


Vietnam's dependence on the Soviet Union is almost total. Without Soviet economic and military support, the Vietnamese economy would crumble.10 Supplies to Vietnamese forces in Kampuchea and at the Sino-Vietnamese border would dry up in weeks. Vietnam would be left vulnerable vis-à-vis the P.R.C. In spite of this clear dependence, the Soviet-Vietnamese relationship is not a simple patron-client relationship. Vietnam is too proud and too tough a nation to accept a totally subservient role, although its room for maneuver has been diminished considerably over the years as a result of its growing dependence on the Soviets.

This dependence increased sharply after its invasion of Kampuchea. This would seem to suggest that the Soviet Union would do little to encourage a settlement in Kampuchea, for fear of losing a dependent client state.

Yet, the Soviet Union has had to bear a heavy burden in supporting Vietnam. Most estimates suggest that the Soviet aid comes to $3 million a day-a total of $1 billion a year. As described by Evelyn Colbert, a former State Department officer, the benefits the Soviets have received in return for their assistance are substantial, including access to Vietnamese ports for the Soviet Pacific fleet, improved intelligence-gathering capabilities against China and the United States, and basing facilities which greatly extend the range of Soviet military aircraft in East and Southeast Asia.11

But Mrs. Colbert goes on to argue that this relationship with Vietnam has not been without cost to the Soviet Union: it has compounded the many differences the Soviet Union has with the United States, added another issue to Sino-Soviet frictions, and reinforced ASEAN suspicions of the Soviet Union. Hence, Mrs. Colbert suggests the intriguing possibility that the Soviet Union may not necessarily oppose a Kampuchean settlement. She says:

At the same time, any settlement in Kampuchea acceptable to Hanoi but not also requiring rupture of the Soviet-Vietnam relationship would probably be acceptable to Moscow, which would have reason for confidence that the limited resources available from other potential donors would keep Hanoi reliant on its generosity. Indeed, Moscow would probably welcome the opportunity to share the burden. Some relaxation of tension between Beijing and Hanoi would probably also be welcome as long as it did not go too far.12

However, it would be unrealistic to expect the Soviet Union to nudge Vietnam toward a Kampuchean settlement. As the current relationship is fraught with a lot of strain, the Soviets are unlikely to initiate moves that could heighten Vietnam's sense of insecurity, which has indeed increased since the resumption of Sino-Soviet talks in October 1982.13

Nevertheless, as one is a superpower with global interests, it is inevitable that Soviet and Vietnamese interests will not always coincide. This has happened several times in recent history. The Soviets were willing to sacrifice Vietnamese interests for Soviet purposes at the Geneva Conference in 1954; they proposed in 1957 that both South and North Vietnam be admitted to the United Nations, and in 1964 Soviet interest in avoiding confrontation with the United States led to a Soviet decision to restrict the level of Soviet aid to Vietnam.14 In 1972, the Soviet Union decided to embrace Richard Nixon a month after the bombing of Haiphong. If Mrs. Colbert's analysis of Soviet-Vietnamese relations today is correct, Soviet interests would be served by a settlement in Kampuchea, as long as their vital interests in Vietnam are not threatened. The Soviets may not be willing to launch the initiatives for such a settlement, but as long as they decide not to block any such initiatives, this means that none of the major parties involved in the conflict, with the sole exception of Vietnam, are opposed to a compromise settlement in Kampuchea.


The ASEAN states have laid the groundwork for a settlement of the Kampuchean problem by mobilizing international opinion against Vietnam (which accounts, in part, for Vietnam's economic distress), motivating the Kampuchean resistance forces to work together against the Vietnamese occupation, and lobbying both Beijing and Moscow to accept a compromise settlement. Yet Vietnam's invasion of Kampuchea has resulted in its direct involvement in the Sino-Soviet dispute and it would require the participation of another major actor to help Vietnam extricate itself from this conflict. Only the United States has the credentials to play such a role.

It will not be easy to motivate the United States to play a leading role in the Indochina theater. Memories of Vietnam still remain vivid within the body politic of the United States. Even today, eight years after the departure of U.S. forces from Vietnam, any American involvement overseas, whether it be in Chad, Lebanon or Nicaragua, is inevitably compared with Vietnam. Stanley Karnow states that before the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the phrase "Remember Munich" would enter into any foreign policy discussion; today the phrase is "Remember Vietnam."15 This concern over U.S. domestic reaction, plus the fear of a public perception of another U.S. failure in Vietnam if any U.S. initiative fails, inevitably leads to a sense of caution among U.S. policymakers in their decisions concerning Indochina.

The present situation in Southeast Asia provides a lot of satisfaction to U.S. leaders. The ASEAN countries have the fastest growing economies of the Third World and, combined together, form the fifth largest trading partner of the United States. The foreign ministers of the United States, Japan, the European Community, Canada, Australia and New Zealand participate annually in the meetings of the ASEAN foreign ministers, a testimony to the growing significance of ASEAN. The United States enjoys close political and economic ties with each of the ASEAN states and has a treaty relationship with two ASEAN members, the Philippines and Thailand. In the wake of the collapse of Indochina, there were widespread fears that there would be a precipitate withdrawal from Southeast Asia. These fears have receded as the United States has quietly but firmly reaffirmed its interest in a stable Southeast Asian region. Vital trade and strategic routes pass through the region. There is virtually no other part of the Third World that the United States can point to as a similar "success story" of U.S. foreign policy.

Given its interest in the continued political stability and economic growth of the ASEAN region, the United States has maintained a keen interest in the Kampuchean issue, which is perceived as the biggest single threat to ASEAN security. The United States has several times reaffirmed its security commitment to Thailand, ASEAN's frontline state, and has airlifted military equipment promptly in response to Vietnamese incursions into Thai territory. The Vietnamese leaders would have taken note of these American gestures, but they now need to be convinced that the United States will play a forceful and active role in the event they agree to a compromise settlement in Kampuchea.

Hitherto the American government has stated that it will follow the lead of the ASEAN governments on the Kampuchean issue. In practice, however, the American government has been obliged to take into consideration its global interests, including its relations with China and the Soviet Union, in the formulation of its policies regarding Kampuchea.16 At the International Conference on Kampuchea, the U.S. government tried to steer a neutral course on the differences that arose between ASEAN and China over the question of the successor government in Kampuchea following a Vietnamese withdrawal. These differences have since been resolved by the Chinese publication of the five-point principles where the Chinese acknowledged that the former Democratic Kampuchea government would not resume office in the event of a Vietnamese withdrawal.

Even though the present situation provides a lot of satisfaction to U.S. policymakers (and in private many American officials derive some pleasure from the fact that, this time around, it is Vietnam that is bleeding at low cost to the United States), the rewards for the United States in the event of a settlement may be even greater. A Kampuchean settlement would pave the way for a historic reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam. As Vietnam would be perceived to be making the necessary compromises by withdrawing its troops from Kampuchea, there should be little domestic opposition to such a reconciliation.

Such a reconciliation, which could prove to be as dramatic as the U.S.-China reconciliation in 1972, could help close a bitter chapter in American history and slowly lay to rest the "ghost" of Vietnam that haunts U.S. foreign policy. If carried out smoothly and successfully, with the cooperation of ASEAN, China, Japan and its other Pacific allies, an American President could hope to reap some domestic political dividends from such a move. No great venture can be undertaken without risks, but given the balance of political, economic and military factors in Indochina, it may be time for the United States to play a more active and decisive role in Indochina.


A solution for the Kampuchean problem would involve the following elements:

-a gradual withdrawal of Vietnamese forces accompanied by the introduction of an international peacekeeping force;

-simultaneous disarmament of all Khmer factions;

-creation of an impartial elections commission under U.N. auspices;

-free elections without any coercion of the population;

-gradual reestablishment of a Khmer governing authority through creation of a bureaucracy, army, judiciary, etc.;

-declaration of neutrality for Kampuchea; and

-massive infusion of international assistance to both Kampuchea and Vietnam.

The ravages of 13 years of conflict and war have done incalculable damage to the social and political fabric of Kampuchea. Some acrimonious divisions have undoubtedly arisen among different segments of the Kampuchean population. The danger of civil war following a Vietnamese withdrawal cannot be totally ruled out, unless the different factions are effectively disarmed.

Bearing in mind these difficulties, a realistic scenario would have to prescribe a gradual and phased withdrawal of Vietnamese forces, perhaps with the Vietnamese remaining in some strength as international peacekeeping forces enter the country. The disarmament of the factions will also be difficult, as most of them are likely to stash away their arms as a guarantee against some other party reneging on the agreement. Elections could also be difficult in the immediate aftermath of a withdrawal, and an interim administration acceptable to all the Kampuchean parties may have to be created while a viable state structure is gradually rebuilt.

Ultimately, however, the Kampucheans are confident that a viable state can be created. The Kampuchean nation has withstood similar tests in the past-even experienced massacres similar to those of the Pol Pot era. Somehow the nation has always managed to survive. The presence of Sihanouk and Son Sann could help ensure that some of the ancient traditions of Kampuchea are revived and preserved, even if a modern state structure is created. Most Kampuchean participants in this exercise would have a strong motivation to succeed. If they failed, the only practical alternative would be the reintroduction of the Pol Pot regime or, a more likely possibility, a reinvasion by Vietnam in the wake of civil war in Kampuchea.


The stakes in Kampuchea are high. The outcome in Kampuchea could well determine the future political orientation of Southeast Asia. If Vietnam were finally to succeed in its fait accompli of occupying Kampuchea, in spite of the opposition of ASEAN, China and the Pacific countries, it might begin to explore fresh initiatives. Already Vietnam has endorsed some Laotian claims on Thailand's northeast territory. This does not mean that Vietnam is intrinsically expansionist-Vietnam would be merely following Lenin's maxim: prod with the bayonet; if you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw. For this reason, the ASEAN states cannot afford to see Vietnam succeed in Kampuchea. This explains the extraordinary cohesion and unity of the five members of ASEAN in the face of persistent Vietnamese attempts to divide it.

Yet the prospects for Vietnam succeeding are bleak. A close analysis of the political, economic and military realities of the situation shows that Vietnam may be headed for disaster. To use Hu Qiaomu's vivid analogy of a speeding train to describe Mao's old age policies, the Vietnamese leaders are now caught in a speeding train that is going to run into a solid mountain called China. Unlike the West, the Chinese leaders are not preoccupied with obtaining foreign policy successes on the eve of elections. They can afford to wait. Ultimately the strain of confronting a nation of one billion people will tell on Vietnam. In fact, by delaying a compromise settlement, Vietnam may be playing into the hands of the Chinese leaders who may prefer to deal with a much weakened Vietnam in five to ten years.

Aware of this possibility, ASEAN policymakers, unlike American policymakers, derive little satisfaction from present trends. A weak Vietnam, subject to pressures from outside powers such as the Soviet Union or China, could bring instability to the rest of Southeast Asia. A strong Vietnam, disentangled from big power conflicts, committed to economic development in harmony with the rest of Southeast Asia and indeed the entire Pacific region (including China), could bring real long-term stability by removing the grounds for any big-power involvement in the region.

A more nimble and flexible Vietnamese leadership would have acknowledged these realities by now. Unfortunately, the present generation of Vietnamese leaders have learned just one lesson in their long years in power: it pays to tough it out. Psychologically, if for no other reasons, Le Duan and his Politburo colleagues will have a hard time accepting the possibility that they made a mistake in their final years. Hence the pressures on Vietnam will have to be sustained if a compromise settlement is to emerge. If recent reports of growing disintegration of the Heng Samrin regime are true, Vietnam's difficulties inside Kampuchea are likely to increase. In recent months, the Vietnamese have been forced to resort to more brutal methods to retain control in Kampuchea-a sure sign of trouble for any colonizing power. Internationally, there is little prospect of a reduction in Vietnam's isolation. Vietnam has in effect conceded this by its decision not to challenge Democratic Kampuchea's credentials at the United Nations. Even though economic sanctions have never really been effective in affecting a nation's policies, the current policy of the United States, Japan and most other advanced industrialized countries to deprive Vietnam of economic aid have succeeded in hitting Vietnam at its weakest point.

The trickiest problem that the ASEAN states have faced in managing the Kampuchean problem has been that of balancing clear and unambiguous messages to Vietnam: on the one hand, opposition to the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea will be tough and sustained; on the other hand, however, the door is open for a compromise settlement. In public, the latter message has been conveyed several times. A carefully phrased moderate and conciliatory signal was sent to Vietnam in the form of the Appeal for Kampuchean Independence issued by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers on September 21, 1983. Similar messages have been conveyed in private signals to Hanoi.

Unfortunately, until now, the reply from Vietnam continues to be negative. Perhaps the Vietnamese leaders are still counting on breaking one of the weak links in the chain of opposition that they face. It may be useful to attempt new diplomatic initiatives from time to time, but there is also the danger that such moves could be interpreted by Vietnam as a sign of weakness. The ultimate message that has to be conveyed to Vietnam is that, this time around, time is not working on Vietnam's side. If this message is sent in a clear and sustained fashion, the ASEAN states can call upon their friends to wait and see the fruits of one of the oldest Asian values: patience.

1 William Shawcross, "In A Grim Country," The New York Review of Books, September 24, 1981, p. 62; Edmund McWilliams, "Vietnam in 1982: Onward Into The Quagmire," Asian Survey, January 1983. p. 62.

3 Paul M. Kattenburg, "So Many Enemies: The View from Hanoi," Indochina Issues, No. 38, June 1983, published by the Indochina Project of the Center for International Policy, in Washington.

4 Lawrence B. Krause, U.S. Economic Policy for ASEAN: Meeting the Japanese Challenge, Washington: Brookings, 1982, p. 17.

5 Edmund McWilliams, loc. cit., p. 66.

6 Theodore H. White, "China: Burnout of a Revolution," Time, September 26, 1983, p. 32.

7 See Elizabeth Becker's article in The New York Times, September 27, 1983.

8 The coalition has no formal political or military headquarters. Its leaders meet periodically, most recently in New York, and the resistance forces are coordinated through liaison at the Thai-Kampuchean border.

9 Guo Yan and Dong Nan, "The Kampuchean Issue-Its Origin and Major Aspects," Beijing Review, September 12, 1983, p. XVIII.

11 Evelyn Colbert, "Power Balance and Security in Indochina," published by Security Conference on Asia and the Pacific, Marina del Rey, California, April 1983, p. 21.

12 Colbert, op. cit., p. 22.

13 McWilliams, loc. cit., p. 69.

15 See Stanley Karnow, "Vietnam As an Analogy," The New York Times, October 4, 1983.



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  • Kishore Mahbubani is Deputy Chief of Mission of the Singapore Embassy in Washington. The views expressed are those of the author.
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