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 occupation of Cambodia: Soviet assistance is widely assessed at $1-2 billion yearly. Moscow’s return on this investment is reflected in its use of the important naval and air facilities at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang in Vietnam.

The third level of the current Indochina conflict reflects its East-West dimension. Like China, the Western world has refused to accept Vietnam’s continued occupation of Cambodia. It insists that however disreputable Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, its successor—because it came to power on the shoulders of Vietnam’s invasion—is no more legitimate. Accordingly, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, (and more recently the United States) have actively aided some elements of the Cambodian opposition—though generally not its Khmer Rouge portion. They have instead sought to direct economic and military aid to elements loyal to Prince Norodom Sihanouk and former Cambodian Prime Minister Son Sann. China, on the other hand, continues to give its strongest support to the Khmer Rouge.

As might be expected, these very different positions have resulted in a stalemate. China, supported by ASEAN and the United States, insists that Vietnam must leave Cambodia. Vietnam, backed by the Soviet Union, insists that before it can leave Cambodia there must be both guarantees that the Khmer Rouge will play no part in any future Cambodian government and an end to threats from China. The convergence of these factors, and the involvement of the outside major powers, introduces to the Indochina conflict the classic formula for explosive international politics, in which external states often have a greater impact on developments than those directly involved. In Indochina, the role of China has been especially important.


An understanding of China’s thousand-year dominance (from 111 B.C. to A.D. 939) over Vietnam is essential to an analysis of their current relationship. The term "Vietnam" derives from the Chinese "An Nam," which means "Pacified South." It has always been an uneasy relationship; the Vietnamese have never doubted that the long-term challenge to their independence emanates from Beijing, and the Chinese have always regarded Vietnam and Indochina as their nation’s "soft underbelly." It was from these southern lands, after all, that French colonial expansion threatened China. Not surprisingly, China has continued to regard this region as one of potential vulnerability.

China’s support for Ho Chi Minh in the war against France should not lead us to forget how short-lived that support was—nor how clearly it was cast off at the time of the 1954 Geneva conference on the Indochina conflict. The French insisted that their defeat at Dien Bien Phu should lead to the loss of not much more than Tonkin, or northern Vietnam. The United States endorsed that position and Moscow, hoping to enlist French support against German rearmament, also supported Paris. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Russian negotiator, in effect argued to the Vietnamese that they should accept a compromise; Zhou Enlai, representing China, supported the Soviet position. Hanoi—faced with the united opposition of China and the Soviet Union (to say nothing of the Western states)—had no choice but to bend.

Thus after years of struggle against the French, Ho Chi Minh had to settle for only some of the fruits of victory. To this day Hanoi holds the conviction that it was "betrayed" at Geneva—principally by its Chinese ally.

In an important Vietnamese white paper published in 1979, Hanoi argued that far from being as close as "lips and teeth," China has consistently and repeatedly "betrayed" Vietnam’s national interests. In fact, China has consistently opposed a unified Indochina under Vietnamese auspices. Beijing has instead strongly endorsed the concept of separate Indochinese states, and as Prince Sihanouk knew at the time, the legitimacy given to Cambodia’s independence at Geneva (as well as that accorded Laos) owed much to China’s support. That support led to a long-standing pattern of close Cambodian-Chinese ties, and China continues to this day to provide generously for Sihanouk’s material needs.

Part of the reason for China’s insistence on an independent and friendly Cambodia is its failure to achieve that goal in Laos. Vietnam has long had more influence over the Lao communists than among the Khmer Rouge, and with the 1977 signing of a friendship treaty, Vietnam virtually annexed Laos. In Cambodia, on the other hand, the Khmer Rouge had a clear and separate existence, and in the spring of 1975—in the final days of the Vietnam War—Pol Pot’s forces occupied Phnom Penh slightly before the Vietnamese marched into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). This allowed the Khmer Rouge to argue that its victory was not dependent on Hanoi’s conquest.

Even so, when the Khmer Rouge came to power its leadership included many Cambodians trained and supported by Vietnam. Often referred to as the "Hanoi Khmer," this was the group through which Hanoi had hoped both to assure close ties with Phnom Penh and to exercise some degree of influence there. Pol Pot, however, was suspicious about this Vietnamese influence, and began both a series of bloody purges against the Hanoi Khmer and several efforts to "rectify" Cambodia’s border with Vietnam. Moreover, he had Chinese support from the outset, and the result was an incendiary mixture.

In Hanoi’s eyes the behavior of the Pol Pot government was that of an ungrateful upstart. It is difficult to know which was the worst of the provocations: the murders of the Hanoi Khmer (in whose training Vietnam had made a major investment), the border hostilities or Phnom Penh’s turn to China. What is clear is that Vietnam ran out of patience and began to prepare for the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime. That was accomplished with the Christmas invasion in 1978; by January 9, 1979, Vietnamese forces occupied Phnom Penh and the Pol Pot regime fled to the hills.

Vietnam remains in effective control in Cambodia. There has been much international activity aimed at a negotiated settlement, and Hanoi has sent numerous signals that it is interested in improving relations with the ASEAN states and the non-communist world generally. Nonetheless, the Vietnamese continue to insist that the situation they have created in Cambodia is "irreversible."


Other nations in the region, and particularly Thailand, whose enmity toward Vietnam goes back centuries, refuse to accept this outcome. In the Thai view, a de facto Indochinese federation dominated by Hanoi places Vietnamese power along Thailand’s southeastern border, at some points only 120 miles from Bangkok. This is precisely what Thai diplomacy has long sought to avoid.

From the Thai perspective, French rule in Cambodia had created a buffer against the pressure of the Vietnamese. In the postwar period, while the Thais were never enamored of Sihanouk, they nevertheless saw the independent state of Cambodia created in 1953 as a "territorial" buffer. They hoped it would continue to insulate them from Vietnam’s historical southward and westward expansion, but Vietnam’s invasion ended that buffer. While some Thai leaders acknowledge that it may not soon be possible to restore Cambodia to its role as territorial buffer (meaning total independence), they insist on returning it at least to a "political" buffer. By this they mean a "neutral" state—one that might be friendly to Vietnam but not occupied by its troops, and with a government in Phnom Penh chosen by Khmers and not handpicked by Hanoi.

Bangkok was quickly able to enlist the support of its ASEAN partners and others for its position. Indonesia (and to a lesser extent Malaysia) had some initial reservations about how hard a stand to take against Vietnam. This stems in part from deep suspicions about China’s role in Asia and from a perception that a strong Vietnam—even one in control of all of Indochina—would be not altogether a bad thing on China’s southern border. In Indonesia’s case, attitudes toward Vietnam are also colored by a certain empathy for Hanoi’s long struggle for independence and unification, which some in Jakarta view as analogous to their own efforts to achieve independence from the Netherlands.

Nevertheless, Thailand’s emphasis on its role as ASEAN’s frontline state, directly facing the militarily powerful Vietnamese, carried the day in bringing about a unified ASEAN position. Singapore also played a key role, for it has its own reasons to affirm the right of small states to be secure from the ambitions of larger neighbors. ASEAN’s efforts resulted in a U.N.-sponsored conference on Cambodia in 1981, which called on Vietnam to withdraw its troops. Soon afterward, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly not to seat representatives of the Heng Samrin government. Under Chinese insistence, however, and despite ASEAN’s reluctance to give any legitimacy to Pol Pot, the General Assembly voted that the Khmer Rouge should retain the U.N. seat. When that position was supported by the United States it led to angry ASEAN charges of "American betrayal."

Since then, an anti-Vietnamese "government-in-exile" of Cambodian leaders has been established, with the Khmer Rouge—ostensibly no longer led by Pol Pot, who is reportedly "retired" and living in good health somewhere in Cambodia—as only one part of a three-member coalition. Diluting the Khmer Rouge role has helped keep the U.N. seat now held by the coalition from falling to the Heng Samrin government and has aided ASEAN’s efforts to gain wider support for its condemnations of Vietnam. As Singapore’s representative to the United Nations wrote recently, Vietnam has become a "pariah nation": "Its international standing is the lowest it has ever been, reflected in the latest U.N. vote of 5 November 1985 . . . when a record number of 114 states voted to condemn the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia."


The reality on the ground is quite different, for the essential political facts in Cambodia have changed little since the Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979. The Heng Samrin government, backed by Hanoi’s troops and civilian advisers, remains firmly in control and, while the ubiquitous Vietnamese no doubt generate popular resentment, the government and its backers are not in any danger of being forcibly ejected. If anything, the opposite is true, as more Khmers assume government positions and the Cambodian economy very slowly improves. Moreover, the military threat to the regime has been contained: from November 1984 to March 1985, Vietnamese troops conducted a successful dry-season offensive against base camps near the Thai border that Khmer resistance groups had developed in the early 1980s.

The offensive resulted in the complete demolition of the camps. It was a south-to-north campaign, beginning with attacks against the forces of Son Sann at Sok Sanh, then further north at Ampil. Between these two camps, the major Khmer Rouge base at Phnom Malai, along with the nearby Khmer Rouge "capital," was overrun in February. Finally, in March 1985 in the far north, Sihanouk’s forces at Tatum were uprooted. In all instances, the resistance fighters were forced to give up their bases and retreat into Thai territory.

Some argue that even those military reverses may have a salutary effect on the anti-Vietnamese forces. This is based on the belief that the coalition, as Congressman Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) has put it, can make the "shift from a strategy of static defense to one of guerrilla warfare." In this view, the aim of the Khmer resistance and its friends is to demonstrate to Hanoi that "Cambodia has become Vietnam’s Vietnam."

Each adversary believes that time is on its side, and each has evidence for the claim. The anti-Vietnamese coalition compares its strength today with the period just after Pol Pot’s ouster. Then, the only organized opposition to the Vietnamese was a ragtag force of 25,000 defeated Khmer Rouge troops, disorganized and scattered across the border in Thailand. Two years later, however, the Pol Pot forces had regrouped, and with new arms and supplies from China—channeled through Thailand—they had grown by several thousand. By 1984, they numbered perhaps 35,000.

Moreover, as a result of the uneasy coalition with Son Sann and Prince Sihanouk, probably another 25,000 can now be included in the resistance. Son Sann reportedly can call on 15,000 troops, and forces associated with Prince Sihanouk number about 10,000. Indeed, in early 1985 the prince—referring only to the forces loyal to his cause—remarked that "by the end of this year we should be close to 20,000." While that may be an exaggeration, it is likely that the size of the combined resistance now numbers 60,000-70,000, and its growth is testified to by actions Vietnam has taken recently to reduce its activities. Those steps include not only the dry-season offensive; the Heng Samrin government has also initiated a program to involve many more Khmers in the fighting, and evidence of anti-resistance security precautions in Cambodia is growing.

For example, even in late 1985, months after Vietnam’s destruction of the coalition’s base camps near the Thai border, occasional attacks were still taking place within 15 miles of Phnom Penh, deep in the interior of Cambodia. Similarly, a Western reporter wrote last year that "trains and buses from the Battambang area arrive in Phnom Penh with armed guards aboard," that "no bridge or village . . . was unguarded," and that "after midnight intersections and major roads are patrolled by Vietnamese troops."

Despite such signs of strength, there are serious questions about the prospects of the resistance. While Hanoi has drawn down its forces in Cambodia from the almost 200,000 it deployed earlier, at least 150,000 Vietnamese troops remain. They are reinforced now by soldiers of the Heng Samrin government, numbering about 35,000, and by many Khmer civilians, who are regularly required to join labor battalions (sometimes engaged in mine-clearing) on the Thai border. The Vietnamese, moreover, have tanks and other heavy equipment; it should not be forgotten that with its ample Soviet supplies, Hanoi commands one of the largest and most tested armies in the world. The contest is quite unbalanced, and not even the coalition’s most optimistic supporters hold out hope for a traditional military victory.

Instead, they believe Vietnam is vulnerable to a war of attrition in Cambodia. This conflict, after all, is different from Hanoi’s past campaigns, in which most of the fighting was on Vietnamese soil and it was possible to justify so much sacrifice for the goals of independence and unification. The absence of those factors leads supporters of the Khmer resistance to believe the Vietnamese can be made to tire of the contest, and that the Cambodian people, historically anti-Vietnamese, will not continue to tolerate their presence.

But as even friends of the coalition know, if the choice within Cambodia is one of accepting the Vietnam presence or contemplating a return of the Pol Pot forces, the Khmer people prefer the Vietnamese. As Congressman Solarz has noted, "a continuation of the Vietnamese occupation would be morally preferable to a return of the Khmer Rouge if that were the only possible consequence of a Vietnamese withdrawal." This begs the question of whether it is possible to bring about a change without the Khmer Rouge, which in turn raises both a tactical military issue and a much larger political problem.

On the first point, there is no doubt that the non-communist forces of Son Sann and Prince Sihanouk have been growing—according to some reports, faster than the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk in particular has been able to attract many recruits, and he remains a central figure in Indochinese developments. For example, Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach has been careful not to dismiss a role for Sihanouk in a future Cambodian government—a point that he stressed to me in a 1980 conversation in Hanoi, and that has been repeated more recently to veteran Indochina reporter Robert Shaplen. "Sihanouk," a senior Hanoi official told him, "is like a mosquito who gets under your net at night and won’t let you sleep." Shaplen concludes that the Vietnamese "have now accepted the fact that Sihanouk is all but impossible to ignore."

Sihanouk’s appeal, despite the fact that most Cambodians today have no personal memory of his rule, is rooted in his long-standing nationalism and dedication to Cambodia’s survival. His distrust of both the Vietnamese and the Thais is well known, as is the antipathy both he and Son Sann share for the Khmer Rouge and especially Pol Pot. The trouble, however, is that Sihanouk also makes no secret of his long-standing disdain for Son Sann, who served as his prime minister in the 1960s. And Son Sann distrusts the prince: among other things, he suspects that Sihanouk may at some point resign or strike a deal with the Vietnamese in exchange for a return to some sort of role in Cambodia.

Son Sann’s forces, moreover, are wracked with factional dissension that is both personality- and policy-based. In early 1986 there were new efforts to depose him, probably by elevation to a ceremonial position and fund-raiser abroad. In addition, there are concerns about corruption in his camp and the ineffective use of the funds he has raised. This issue drew special attention in 1985, when Congress was considering a $5-million expenditure to aid the non-communist resistance. For example, in a May 1985 conversation in Bangkok with the senior Thai official involved, I asked how the proposed American money would be managed. For accounting "and other reasons," I was told, it should be channeled through Bangkok. When the point was pressed, it was suggested that "high living abroad" by the Son Sann group had already caused problems.

All these difficulties have diluted the potential strength of the coalition’s two non-communist elements. Only rarely have they cooperated militarily with one another or with the Khmer Rouge (with which they sometimes do battle), and while all three are engaged in harassment inside Cambodia, they seem capable of not much more than that. Certainly they represent a drain on Vietnam’s resources, but Hanoi either is confident that it can soon end the harassment, or more probably believes the resistance presents no serious threat. In any case, Vietnam has announced that its occupation will end by 1990.

Skeptics regard that as a ploy to lull the West into giving up on Cambodia: Hanoi, they argue, will no more completely withdraw from Cambodia anytime soon than from Laos, where 40,000 Vietnamese troops remain. More important, they believe that Vietnam’s economic weakness means it cannot much longer afford the scale of the Cambodian venture, and for that reason argue for keeping on the pressure.


Poverty and economic mismanagement in Vietnam reached their nadir in 1979-81. Hanoi’s officials now concede there was widespread malnutrition in that period: "Frankly," one remarked to a Western correspondent, "our people were underfed until 1980." Indeed, the empty shelves I saw in Hanoi’s shops that year were reminiscent of Sukarno’s Jakarta in 1964-65, and in other ways recalled a Southeast Asia I had not seen since the 1950s. Vietnam’s capital was a city of bicycles in which the only modern vehicles were military, the only civilian motorized transport was aging Chinese buses, and almost the only new building in the city’s central district was the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Most others appeared to date from the height of the French colonial period at the turn of the century.

In 1985, with a per capita annual income of only about $160, Vietnam still ranked as one of world’s 20 poorest countries. Its currency on the openly traded "black market" drew only a small fraction of its official value, and hyperinflation was especially disastrous to its urban population. A dozen eggs, for example, represented almost two weeks’ wages for an average Hanoi government worker, and a tube of toothpaste the equivalent of three months’.

In response to these conditions, Vietnam announced a series of radical economic changes in June and September 1985. They included a ten-to-one currency devaluation, drastic reductions in subsidies, decentralization of economic decision-making, increased authority for small private industries, and, apparently under the impetus of Southerners long-accustomed to foreign goods, approval for provinces to engage directly in foreign trade. Much confusion, but also some progress, has come from these reforms. Nayan Chanda, the experienced Indochina correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, returned to Vietnam in early 1986 after a five-year absence and reported that although the country as a whole remains very poor, "one is struck by the apparent improvement in people’s standard of living in Hanoi and the northern countryside."

It is too soon to know how much long-term improvement will result, but it is clear these changes reflect the leadership’s awareness that economic reform is essential, and that it will not come easily. In a typical comment, the Vietnamese Communist Party paper Nhan Dan recently argued that the country’s program was endangered by "theft, corruption, [and] complicity between cadres and dishonest merchants to steal." Straight-faced, it added that these problems were found in [just!] "four fields of activity":

production, distribution, transportation, and storage [in] the following economic sectors: food, home, and foreign trade, supply, distribution and circulation, power and coal. . . . The strategic commodities which have been stolen the most are grain, gas and oil, iron and steel, cement, chemical fertilizer, coal, fabrics, timber, medicines, chemicals.

One wonders, of course, what else is left. But the more important point is that however high the cost of the Cambodian effort, it is of less concern than the two internal issues—economic reform and generational change in the leadership—that now occupy the greatest attention in Vietnam. Even before the death in July of this year of 78-year-old party leader Le Duan (and his replacement by the 79-year-old Truong Chinh), it was already clear that the succession was under way. Plans are afoot for the Vietnamese Communist Party to hold its Sixth Party Congress in December 1986. Most signs indicate that the congress will pave the way for a greater role for provincial leaders and some younger and more "pragmatic" men, and probably no greater role for the military. But these imminent changes should not lead us to expect significant shifts in foreign policy. To put it another way, in 1979-81, when economic conditions were at their worst, Hanoi was not inclined to draw back from Cambodia: today, when it has effectively contained the divided Khmer resistance, begun to improve its economy, and sees no sign that its principal patron in Moscow is tiring of its support, it is even less likely to do so.


These developments call into question the value of the present U.S. Indochina policy, and the question involves ASEAN, China and the Soviet Union. The goal of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia is to enhance the region’s stability and growing prosperity; this requires, among other things, that the United States maintain the trust of the Philippines and Thailand in its bilateral commitments. Accordingly, a desire to "follow ASEAN" explains much of U.S. policy on Cambodia. But the issue has divided ASEAN, and the United States may have tied itself not to a solid anchor but to an increasingly brittle shell.

In Indonesia, doubts about ASEAN’s Indochina policy that were evident at the outset have not diminished. Jakarta’s military leaders see the ASEAN stance as a "fruitless and pointless exercise," and distrust the Sino-Thai cooperation to which it has led. Some even contemplate "Indonesia without ASEAN," and while events will not go that far with President Suharto in office, there are signs that Indonesia’s military and civilian leaders are beginning to narrow their differences on the issue. Recently, for example, Foreign Minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, generally a strong advocate of ASEAN solidarity, remarked: "We feel the Vietnamese no longer have the capability to destabilize [the region]. . . . "

The Cambodia conflict has also heightened China’s role in Southeast Asia, and the United States—though perhaps uncomfortable with Beijing’s continued support for the Khmer Rouge—has implicitly supported this development. China’s position is explained by its long-standing resistance to a single Indochinese political entity, particularly under Vietnamese control. But it is not evident that this warrants American support, and to others in the Pacific it sends a wrong signal: it suggests that the United States, drawn by China’s potential role as a counterweight to the Soviet Union in global affairs, will inevitably incline toward Beijing’s priorities in Asia.

Hanoi recognizes that it must eventually improve relations with China and that its close (but often strained) military, political and economic ties to Moscow have become a major obstacle. Hanoi also realizes that its occupation of Cambodia and ties to Moscow have isolated it from Europe, ASEAN and Japan. Thus, the Vietnamese continue to convey to foreign visitors their interest in improving ties with the West, and especially the United States. That goal, they believe, will be facilitated by eventually loosening their grip on Cambodia—but not in a way that brings a return of either Chinese influence or the Khmer Rouge.

China, however, shows no sign that it has given up on the Khmer Rouge, and continues to threaten to "teach Vietnam a second lesson." Yet Beijing will need to question how important it is to resist Hanoi’s role in Indochina, especially given the costs it would incur were it to make good on that threat. It is difficult, for example, to see how Japanese and American support for China’s modernization could continue were Beijing to embark on another war that would follow a second, and presumably more effective, invasion of Vietnam.

Some Southeast Asians, probably overestimating Washington’s influence, look to the United States to help persuade Beijing to temper its anti-Vietnam posture. They see China as key to the Cambodia conflict. Others—hoping that China’s pressure will lead Vietnam to withdraw quickly from Cambodia—welcome the Chinese role. The United States must question the wisdom of implicitly encouraging that Chinese presence, with the potential for conflict escalation it has brought and the intra-ASEAN divisions it has heightened.

It is in connection with the U.S.S.R. that the Cambodian conflict raises what are potentially the most serious and long-term problems. Vietnam’s expansion into Cambodia has deepened Hanoi’s economic dependence on the Soviet Union and thereby facilitated Moscow’s use of the outstanding naval and air facilities at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang. It is worth recalling, after all, that Hanoi signed a friendship treaty with Moscow in November 1978—only weeks before its invasion of Cambodia. Soviet ships had been putting in at Cam Ranh since Saigon’s collapse in 1975, but Moscow’s use of the Vietnamese facilities sharply increased after the 1978 treaty, which provides for military cooperation.

Today 25 to 35 Soviet naval vessels are stationed at Cam Ranh, including four to six submarines and five to ten surface combat vessels, and all are serviced by a large floating dry dock. There are 7,000 Soviet military personnel in Vietnam. The Soviet Union has also stationed there eight of its approximately 125 Bear (Tu-95) strategic bombers, and since 1984, 16 of its 240 Badger (Tu-16) medium-range fighter-bombers. As one military specialist pointed out, this is a notable development since it represents "the only Russian strike aircraft deployed anywhere in the world beyond Soviet borders."

For the Soviets, Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang represent the culmination of long-held ambitions for unencumbered year-round facilities in the Pacific. In 1945 these ambitions led to Stalin’s demands at Yalta for "extraterritorial" naval rights from China (at Dairen and Port Arthur), an arrangement that Mao was later required to renew. When he brought it to an end in 1955, Moscow began an unsuccessful search for alternatives, first in Indonesia, then in Cambodia and probably North Korea, and not long ago a Soviet "rental" offer was reportedly made to the Republic of Maldives. The achievement of this goal in Vietnam is a development of major strategic importance, as Brezhnev underlined when the Kremlin hierarchy welcomed Hanoi’s treaty-signing delegation in 1978 and hailed Vietnam as "this important outpost for peace and socialism in Southeast Asia."

From an American perspective, the important point is that these new Soviet facilities are less than 800 miles from the Philippines. Even before the recent Marcos-Aquino contest drew new attention to America’s bases there, it was clear both that the South China Sea was no longer an "American lake" and that the bases were much criticized by the Filipino people. In any case, the bases agreement will need to be renegotiated by 1991, and, depending on the outcome of internal developments in the Philippines, it could be terminated altogether. In that context, it seems reasonable for the United States to question whether the growing Soviet military role in Vietnam must be regarded as a permanent fact of life, or whether some efforts can be made to loosen or alter the Hanoi-Moscow connection.

That process cannot begin, however, so long as ASEAN, backed by the United States and China, continues to insist on turning back the clock in Cambodia. That posture has no realistic prospect of success, and to the extent that it encourages Thailand to act as sanctuary and conduit for the Khmer resistance, it is needlessly provocative. A wiser American approach would be to assure its absolute commitment to Thai security—including the military assistance necessary to make that commitment unquestionable—and to send clear signals to Hanoi that the United States cannot accept Vietnamese aggression against Thai territory.

Such a policy would recognize that in a Southeast Asian environment that is otherwise very positive, the government of Vietnam represents a distasteful and negative element. In security terms, however, Vietnam represents not a cancer to be eradicated but a toothache, and the American policies and methods chosen to deal with it should be those appropriate for no more than a lesser pain.


Unfortunately, as was the case a generation ago, American policy in Southeast Asia still exaggerates Vietnam’s significance. It tends to discount the fact that America’s long-term goals in the region—Southeast Asia’s political stability and economic development—have largely been realized or are well under way. Those accomplishments dwarf Hanoi’s significance and suggest that, with its emphasis on Vietnam, American policy aims to achieve a putative "ideal" when the good—the region as now constituted—will suffice. Moreover, the current policy carries three serious risks that need not be borne: a continuation or worsening of ASEAN’s disarray; an enlarged Chinese role in Southeast Asia that is inconsistent both with American interests and those of its friends in the Pacific; and an even greater Soviet military presence in the region. None of these outcomes are inevitable, but to avoid them the United States will need to shift course regarding Vietnam. Five operational steps are called for.

The first is to encourage ASEAN to bring to an end its confrontation with Vietnam over Cambodia, in the context of a genuine drawdown of Vietnamese forces from Cambodian territory proximate to Thailand. Thailand and Singapore must be convinced to end their support for the Cambodian rebels. This in turn will require, as already mentioned, an absolute reaffirmation of the U.S. security commitment to Bangkok, a process already begun with the Thai-U.S. agreement to "preposition" significant military supplies in Thailand.

The issue here is trust: not only the Thais, but others in the region as well, continue to fear that the United States has washed its hands of its security commitments in the region. They point to the 1969 Guam Doctrine as evidence that the United States will never again be involved militarily in the region, but they misread its point: the United States promised to honor its commitments and to help those able and willing to help themselves. While on the one hand Washington will need to make unalterably clear to Hanoi that its commitment to Thailand is unshakable, the president and Congress will need to take the measures, and allocate the military assistance funds, to make that commitment to Thailand beyond question.

Second, the United States will want to inform Japan, whose modest economic aid to Vietnam was terminated when it invaded Cambodia, that it no longer opposes such assistance. The same message should be conveyed to other friendly nations that ceased their aid programs after 1979. Likewise, the United States should forgo its efforts to prevent international lending agencies such as the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank from extending aid to Vietnam and Cambodia. This does not, of course, mean that the United States should undertake any direct aid program to Hanoi.

Third, the United States should establish an "interests" section in a friendly embassy in Hanoi, such as the Australian mission. Moreover, since even Vietnam insists that Cambodia is an independent state, there is no compelling reason for the United States not to have similar representation in Phnom Penh. This is not to say that Washington should press for full diplomatic normalization with either Vietnam or Cambodia, but simply that American interests will be furthered by the ability of U.S. officials to report directly from both capitals.

Fourth, the United States should end its embargo on trade with both Vietnam and Cambodia. In an era when the United States is seeking to decrease its trade deficit, there is no gain from a policy that sees sales—however small—diverted to France and Japan. There is also no value in a policy that sees Vietnam increase its economic dependence on the Soviet Union or East Germany. Similarly, and to the extent that Vietnamese and Cambodian students might come to America under arrangements where no public funds were involved, they should be welcomed no less than students from China, for example. At the 1985 summit conference in Geneva, President Reagan indicated that he would like to see more Soviet students in the United States; there is no reason why the same principle should not apply to Vietnam and Cambodia.

Finally, the United States should not allow the issue of our missing military personnel to act as a de facto block against any improvement in relations with Vietnam. Hanoi is again actively cooperating with American officials and private groups involved in the issue. It is helping to locate and identify remains, and that process is hardly likely to be retarded under improved relations. The issue is not "normalization": Secretary of State George Shultz has assured ASEAN that normalization of U.S.-Vietnamese relations depends on a negotiated settlement in Cambodia. But Mr. Shultz has also termed the MIA/POW issue the "foremost" bilateral problem between Washington and Hanoi, and an insistence on prior "full accounting" could hinder any improvement in relations well short of normalization.

This is an emotional issue, and present U.S. policy has wide domestic support. The MIA/POW issue, however, needs to be more frankly confronted, as a few have done already. Some knowledgeable Americans, including several with long and very senior public service in East and Southeast Asian affairs, hold the private view that the U.S. posture on the issue, although certainly well intentioned, is not well advised. It places more of a role in Hanoi’s hands for determining the pace of relations than is appropriate between two such disparate powers. These observers similarly believe it will not be helpful to American political interests—either in terms of the growing Soviet role in Indochina or the rising tension within ASEAN—to insist on settling every aspect of the MIA/POW issue prior to establishing some form of political relationship with Hanoi.

The American families and other groups that have been most actively involved in the issue will need to be assured that the United States will not let up its efforts to get a full accounting of missing Americans and to complete the recovery and identification of remains. It is precisely those groups that have been so prominently involved in getting Vietnam’s increasing cooperation on the matter, and there is little reason to expect that with better relations Hanoi would not continue in the same vein.

It is reasonable to ask what the United States will gain from this five-point shift in policy and what its effects will be. The answer is improved ASEAN cohesion, a less intrusive Chinese role in the region (which ASEAN will welcome), and most important, fewer opportunities for the Soviet Union to expand its influence in Southeast Asia.

Moscow has been the main winner in the Indochina conflict. It has greatly enhanced its military presence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific by virtue of Hanoi’s dependence and the unhindered use of Cam Ranh Bay. American policy should aim to reduce that presence. Nobody can guarantee a quick loosening of the Hanoi-Moscow connection, but it is clear that Hanoi bridles at its heavy dependence on Moscow and that an end to the Cambodia conflict will remove its major justification.

Second, while ASEAN has done a good job of papering over its disagreements on the Cambodia issue, the trends are not favorable. The group’s continued stability is very important to the United States, and despite a popular misconception that American leadership is not wanted, the reality is that prominent voices in ASEAN capitals increasingly are calling on Washington to take the initiative in ending the conflict. Their reason is a desire to preserve ASEAN unity and a concern to avoid an increased Chinese role in the region’s affairs. The United States should be no less concerned on both counts.

The sticking point, of course, is China. Initially, Beijing will not be pleased by this shift in American policy, nor by the potential improvement in U.S.-Vietnam relations it might imply. But the Chinese have a major stake in maintaining close ties with the United States, and will need to ask themselves whether the conflict with Vietnam outweighs the importance of their relations with the United States and, for that matter, Japan and the ASEAN states. If Thailand’s security is assured, and ASEAN is prepared to improve relations with Vietnam, will it be reasonable for Beijing to remain the last holdout on the Cambodia issue?

The central point is that however high Indochina may be on China’s agenda, it does not warrant that place on the scale of American interests. For the United States, in other words, there is now a need to restore a more clearly American approach to the region. Nobody can guarantee the region’s stability, but the steps outlined here can help set the course of U.S. policy back on the track it undertook a generation ago—when American leaders were initially reluctant to endorse French efforts to maintain colonial control in Indochina. The United States became involved there nevertheless, and much has been lost by virtue of that long effort. It is time now to bring it to an end.

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  • Bernard K. Gordon is Professor of Political Science at the University of New Hampshire and the author of several books and articles on international politics in Asia. He is currently writing an Adelphi paper on economic frictions in the Pacific region for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London.
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