Courtesy Reuters

The Third Indochina Conflict

Today’s struggle in Indochina is the third since World War II. It is a complex conflict, with some actors onstage and others off in the wings. On its surface, it arose initially from a struggle between Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge—the Cambodian communists, led by Pol Pot, who took power in Phnom Penh in the spring of 1975. The Khmer Rouge governed for three-and-a-half bloody years, during which time as many as one million Cambodians may have perished. On Christmas Day 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia. In a matter of weeks, the Khmer Rouge government was replaced by one subservient to Hanoi, with Heng Samrin as its nominal leader. To this day, Vietnam maintains 150,000 to 160,000 troops in Cambodia and provides much of the country’s administrative infrastructure.

While the Khmer Rouge was ejected from the seat of power, it was not destroyed. From sanctuaries that typically have straddled the northern and western border with Thailand (but have sometimes been located deeper within Cambodia), it has continued to harass the Heng Samrin government and the Vietnamese military. Because this level of the conflict is between two ostensibly communist groups, it is sometimes referred to as an "East-East" struggle.

That label applies to its second level as well: the conflict between Vietnam and China. The Chinese, as "punishment" for Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia, launched a brief attack on several northern provinces of Vietnam in February 1979. Today Beijing still supports the rebel Khmer Rouge forces and maintains military pressure on Hanoi from its border with Vietnam. As recently as this spring, both sides reported artillery casualties on that border, and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping has even threatened a second invasion unless Hanoi withdraws its forces from Cambodia.

The East-East element of the conflict is underscored by the role of the Soviet Union. Moscow has been Hanoi’s principal foreign supporter since the late stages of the second Indochina conflict—America’s Vietnam War—and today underwrites both Vietnam’s domestic economy and its

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