For many years the conflict over Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia appeared intractable: Vietnam refused to negotiate except with China, while China flatly refused to negotiate; Hanoi would not consider any settlement in which the Khmer Rouge had a role, while the Khmer Rouge, backed by China, insisted there could be no settlement that did not include them. Cambodia seemed to be condemned indefinitely to Vietnamese military occupation, on one hand, and the continuous threat of the return to power of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, on the other.

But since former Cambodian chief of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk opened direct negotiations with the Vietnamese-sponsored People’s Republic of Kampuchea last December, a peace settlement has for the first time become a real possibility. Indeed, the broad outlines of such a settlement, built around Sihanouk’s return to Cambodia, have begun to emerge. Although the negotiations could still be snagged on the problems of power-sharing in a transitional Cambodian regime and insulating national elections against Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army, the international context is far more conducive to a peace agreement today than it was in the early 1980s. Hanoi’s interest in a negotiated settlement has increased as it has encountered difficulties with its plan to withdraw unilaterally all of its troops by the end of 1990. The passage of time has also brought a more pragmatic Chinese attitude toward Cambodia and a new configuration of relations among the United States, China and the Soviet Union that gives both China and Vietnam reasons for wanting an early settlement.


Underlying the diplomatic stalemate that prevailed over the Cambodian war for so many years was the bitter conflict between China and Vietnam. Although an element of geopolitical rivalry over influence in Laos and Cambodia was undoubtedly involved, the conflict was fueled primarily by Chinese animosity and Vietnamese fears. Chinese leaders were angered by Vietnam’s "ingratitude" for China’s aid in the war against the United States and "betrayal" following a series of "anti-Chinese" actions after 1975. For their part, the Vietnamese, recalling a thousand years of Chinese efforts to sinicize them, believed Beijing was reverting to its historical policy of trying to keep weak and pliant states on its southern border.

It was the border war between the Democratic Kampuchea regime of Pol Pot and his erstwhile Vietnamese allies that triggered the violent Sino-Vietnamese confrontation of early 1979. In retrospect, the self-destructive policies of the Pol Pot period appear to have had more to do with racial antipathy toward the Vietnamese "hereditary enemy" than with communist ideology. Obsessed with reversing the centuries-long decline of the Khmer people, Pol Pot was apparently convinced after the Khmer Rouge victory in the Cambodian civil war (1970-75) that he had created a revolutionary force powerful enough to take back the formerly Cambodian land occupied for centuries by the Vietnamese.

Democratic Kampuchea’s disastrous socioeconomic policies, aimed at creating a powerful Cambodia in just a few years, resulted in as many as two million Cambodian deaths from sickness, starvation and execution. Pol Pot’s purge of party and army personnel suspected of disloyalty and his provocative military offensive along the disputed Cambodian-Vietnamese border in 1977 drove a number of his key military officers into alliance with Vietnam, and provided one segment of leadership of the new government that Vietnamese troops set up in Phnom Penh in January 1979.

In occupying Cambodia and putting a client regime in power, Vietnam clearly went beyond defending its border against Pol Pot’s attacks. What drove Vietnamese policy was the belief, reinforced by two recent wars in Indochina, that Cambodia was a vital part of Vietnam’s security sphere. After Vietnam concluded in mid-1978 that China had become the "main and immediate enemy" of the Vietnamese revolution, it was determined to eliminate Chinese influence in Cambodia.

When Vietnam decided to use force to get rid of the Pol Pot regime, the disparities between Vietnam and Cambodia in size, bureaucratic development and cultural self-confidence came into play. Vietnamese occupation and political tutelage inevitably took on the aspect of imperialist domination, even though Hanoi’s purpose was not economic exploitation or colonization. Hanoi’s ambition, in fact, was to mold a Cambodian social and political system that would be closely aligned with Vietnam for generations. The temptation to try for such a far-reaching historical goal was increased by the fact that the Cambodian population greeted the Vietnamese as liberators when they drove out the Pol Pot regime in January 1979.

The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the establishment of the pro-Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea was a blow to Chinese pride and prestige as a regional power. In response, Deng Xiaoping ordered a three-week punitive military expedition into Vietnam’s northern border provinces in February 1979 to "teach Vietnam a lesson." This pedagogical invasion, which Chinese officials later evaluated as a costly failure, was followed almost immediately by the establishment of a large Soviet naval and air presence in Vietnam—to the chagrin of many Chinese military leaders.

Deng was successful, however, in mobilizing regional and global opposition to the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. China drew the United States, Japan, West European countries and the noncommunist states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) into an informal international coalition aimed at putting military, economic and diplomatic pressure on Hanoi. Militarily, the Chinese provided the arms and ammunition to Pol Pot’s forces with the cooperation of Thailand, which served as a conduit. Diplomatically, ASEAN took the lead at the United Nations, demanding a Vietnamese military withdrawal and insisting that the Cambodian seat at the United Nations remain in the hands of Democratic Kampuchea rather than fall to the Vietnamese-sponsored regime. The United States persuaded several countries and international institutions to suspend economic assistance to Vietnam until it left Cambodia, thus denying Hanoi an estimated half a billion dollars annually.

One weakness of this strategy was that it required the international coalition to give diplomatic support to the bloodstained regime of Pol Pot in the U.N. General Assembly. By 1981 several European states were threatening to vote against seating the Pol Pot regime. This danger prompted the creation in 1982 of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK), which united three opposition elements: the anticommunist Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF) under the leadership of former Cambodian Prime Minister Son Sann, Prince Sihanouk’s political front, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

With this arrangement Sihanouk and Son Sann (both of whom had repeatedly rejected the possibility of a united front with the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and 1980) were agreeing in effect to lend respectability to Pol Pot’s forces in return for help in building up their respective armies. Both had been advised by China and Thailand (China’s partner in supporting the Khmer Rouge resistance since 1979) that they would get military equipment only if they joined a coalition with the Khmer Rouge. Although the United States and ASEAN embraced the goal of building up the noncommunist resistance forces to equal or surpass Pol Pot’s army, Washington only provided token nonlethal assistance beginning in 1985. It was left to the Chinese to provide the military supplies to the noncommunist forces, and the noncommunist counterweight to the Khmer Rouge never emerged.

Pol Pot’s guerrilla army, estimated at 25,000-35,000 troops, far outnumbers all the combined noncommunist resistance forces operating inside Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge’s ability to carry out military operations, however, has been substantially reduced since a successful Vietnamese offensive during the 1984-85 dry season eliminated a string of Khmer Rouge camps near the Thai border and disrupted their logistics systems. Once credited with having enough supplies to carry on two years of warfare, they are now believed to have only enough for two months of operations before having to retreat and regroup.

The Khmer Rouge have now decided to reduce military operations to a minimum and concentrate on strengthening their underground network in the villages. Noncommunist Cambodian resistance officials have become increasingly concerned in recent years about the large sums of American dollars that Khmer Rouge cadres have received from China to dispense in the villages to attract the rural population to their cause. The combination of small guerrilla units, underground cadres and abundant cash may give them a potential for a strong showing in any future election process.

The Khmer Rouge, who still refer to themselves as the "Democratic Kampuchea faction," are believed by some observers to be divided between a "moderate" group led by their nominal leader Khieu Samphan and military chief Son Sen, and the "extremist" clique surrounding Pol Pot. No doubt Khieu Samphan is more moderate than Pol Pot. He was chosen to replace Pol Pot as head of the Khmer Rouge faction of the CGDK as part of an effort to improve its image. But the Khmer Rouge army and political network are under the firm control of Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and their wives—the inner core of the regime when it was in power. Khieu Samphan is a figurehead who remains powerless, as he was from 1975 to 1979.

The Pol Pot group has carried on an armed struggle for nearly a decade to restore itself to power. It ostensibly dissolved the Communist Party of Kampuchea in 1981, at China’s suggestion, but the organization, by whatever name, remains unchanged. The same racial hatred for the Vietnamese that impelled its disastrous policies in the 1970s now provides the rationale for regaining power by whatever means necessary. As Ieng Sary declared in 1981, even if the Vietnamese withdraw from Kampuchea, it will only be for "tactical reasons," and the Vietnamese threat will not recede in "this generation or the next." The Pol Pot group trusts no other Cambodians to have the toughness to resist that threat.

Son Sann’s KPNLF, once touted as the main alternative to the Khmer Rouge, has been seriously divided by squabbling between Son Sann and the military leadership. It has been unable to organize any significant military operations in the interior since the elimination of its border camps in the 1984-85 dry season. It suffered defections to the Sihanoukists, as well as massive desertion to the Thai border area and the Cambodian countryside. By early 1986 the KPNLF was believed to have only about a thousand men left inside the country. Although that figure is higher today, the KPNLF is in danger, as one U.S. official puts it, of becoming a "nonentity."

Prince Sihanouk’s Armée Nationale Sihanoukiste (ANS) has emerged since 1985 as the second-strongest resistance force, with some 15,000 troops, of which perhaps half are operating in the interior. Sihanouk’s main strength, however, is the fact that many soldiers of other factions, the rural population and most civilians working for the Phnom Penh regime still regard him with respect and affection as Samdech Euv ("Prince-father"). His return to Phnom Penh, in the context of a negotiated agreement that would allow him to operate freely, would dramatically alter the lines of Cambodian politics.

It is more than nine years since the Vietnamese invasion, but the regime in Phnom Penh has made only limited progress in building a political-military apparatus that can command the loyalty of the population. Its armed forces are believed to have some 50,000 troops, which have taken on an increasing share of military duties from the Vietnamese. But morale and cohesion remain a major question. The Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party claims about 7,000 members and another 40,000 potential members in "core groups," but the loyalty of many of these new converts must be considered uncertain at best. Phnom Penh has gained some political credit by not overly regimenting Cambodian economic and cultural life, but it has been unable to restore production to its pre-1970 level. More important, Hanoi’s hegemonic political role in Cambodia since 1979, mainly through the influence of Vietnamese officials in the central ministries, has alienated most of the educated segment of the population.


The possibility of a Cambodian settlement in the next year or two exists mainly because of the passionate desire of Prince Sihanouk for such a settlement and his long record of skillful diplomatic maneuvering. Sihanouk seized the initiative in a series of surprise moves in 1987 and early 1988. First, in May 1987, he resigned as president of the CGDK for a year. Then he met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in December 1987 and January 1988 outside Paris to discuss a framework for a settlement. Almost immediately following the second meeting, Sihanouk announced in Beijing that he was leaving the CGDK permanently in order to maintain his diplomatic independence. But then he began to hint that he might resume the leadership of the CGDK after all unless an adequate response to his latest initiative was forthcoming from Hanoi and Phnom Penh.

A shrewd diplomatic mind is at work behind Sihanouk’s seemingly erratic behavior. What casual observers have long described as a "mercurial" personality is in fact a calculated tactic that he has been using for nearly four decades to enhance his diplomatic leverage: by abruptly changing sides, or threatening to do so, he gets concessions from more powerful actors who for one reason or another need his cooperation. In 1952, for example, Sihanouk, then a 30-year-old king, forced France to turn over complete control of the army, police and judicial system to his Royal Government of Cambodia (which had been collaborating with the French against Vietnamese-supported Khmer insurgents) by threatening a nationwide anti-French revolution.

Sihanouk abdicated his throne in 1955 to become a politically active chief of state. He used both his remaining aura of devaraja (god-king) and the force of his personality to dominate Cambodian politics until the March 1970 coup that ended his rule. Sihanouk’s Royal Government of Cambodia was a conservative authoritarian system in which opposition figures were arbitrarily jailed and the economy tightly regulated by a traditionally venal bureaucracy.

But as a strategist of weak-state diplomacy, he was—and still is—unequaled in contemporary international politics. In the 1960s Sihanouk shrewdly managed Cambodia’s relations with China and North Vietnam by giving those states a stake in supporting his monarchist regime against Pol Pot’s communist movement. Sihanouk’s greatest accomplishment was to minimize the impact of the inevitable spillover of America’s Vietnam War into Cambodia after 1965. He negotiated an agreement with Hanoi in 1967, when its need for sanctuaries in Cambodia was greatest, and in 1969 he reopened relations with the United States, whose aid and embassy he had earlier expelled. After Sihanouk’s ouster in 1970, Cambodia was quickly engulfed in war and internal violence.

For the next five years, Sihanouk was allied with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge as well as with China and Vietnam against the U.S.-backed regime that had ousted him from power. He became a virtual prisoner of the Khmer Rouge after their victory in 1975. Even after he was sent to represent Cambodia at the United Nations as Vietnamese troops approached Phnom Penh, Sihanouk remained physically under Khmer Rouge guard. While in New York in January 1979, with the U.S. State Department’s help, he escaped from the cadres assigned to him and began at once to position himself for a negotiated settlement.

The prince believed that he alone could be acceptable to both China and Vietnam. Convinced that the Vietnamese were still grateful to him for having permitted communist forces to use Cambodian border sanctuaries during the American war, he publicly recalled his close personal friendship with then Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and wrote three letters to him in 1979 asking that Hanoi agree to a negotiated settlement. The Vietnamese, he believed, would be able to weaken the Khmer Rouge forces within two or three years, after which China, the West and Vietnam would all recognize the necessity of a compromise plan in which he would play the central role. Sihanouk argued that the Khmer Rouge were the Cambodian people’s main enemy, while the Vietnamese were only enemy number two. Meanwhile he tried to persuade China and the ASEAN states to abandon Pol Pot’s forces, and sought U.S. support to build up an army.

By the end of 1981, however, Sihanouk recognized that he had miscalculated on all fronts. He had underestimated the staying power of Pol Pot’s guerrillas as well as Beijing’s commitment to them. The United States, which had embraced a Sihanouk solution to the conflict in the summer of 1979, had soon shifted, at the insistence of China, to support for a united front with the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese. And his old friends in Hanoi refused even to acknowledge his letters. Pham Van Dong went so far as to proclaim him "a finished man."

Confronted with these setbacks Sihanouk made a strategic shift, becoming president of the CGDK in order to avoid being marginalized by the external powers. But he never abandoned his ultimate aim of negotiating a peace agreement with Hanoi that would end Vietnamese occupation and restore Cambodian independence. The CGDK’s eight-point peace proposal of March 1986, which first introduced the idea of a four-party coalition government (but failed to include any safeguards against Khmer Rouge military power), underlined his differences with the Chinese. After having acquiesced in the plan, Sihanouk publicly complained that it would result in the Khmer Rouge again ruling Cambodia.

By 1987 Prince Sihanouk had come to regard the CGDK as a serious hindrance to a diplomatic settlement. His coalition partners rejected all negotiations with Phnom Penh (Hanoi had signaled its interest in such talks as early as 1984) until the Vietnamese had substantially withdrawn—a posture he believed was too rigid. Son Sann and the Khmer Rouge insisted that there was no evidence of Vietnamese seriousness, and that talking with the Phnom Penh government would only lend it legitimacy. But Sihanouk was willing to take that chance in order to plumb Hanoi’s intentions.

After the first two rounds of talks, Prince Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen remained far apart on the critical issue of a transitional government and its relationship to national elections. Hun Sen rejected Sihanouk’s proposal that the present Cambodian government be dissolved and replaced by a provisional coalition government that would hold elections under international supervision. Hun Sen’s counterproposal was that the elections be organized by an "electoral commission" with representation of all parties, and that the new coalition government be formed only after the elections take place.

The apparent deadlock in these first meetings was misleading, however. In response to Hun Sen’s complaint that destroying the present administration would create chaos that the Khmer Rouge could exploit, Sihanouk said that the local and provincial administration would not need to be dismantled. Sihanouk called for giving each side equal representation at the top of each national ministry.

Phnom Penh was also not as inflexible as Hun Sen’s opening position would suggest. It may well agree to negotiate on power-sharing in advance of national elections. Chea Soth, a member of the ruling Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party Politburo, has suggested since the second round of talks that there would have to be negotiations with Sihanouk on the political structure of a coalition government to determine "whether you want it to be the Kingdom of Kampuchea, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, or Democratic Kampuchea." That offer appears to modify Hun Sen’s insistence during the talks that a coalition government can only come after elections, and opens the way for determining a formula for apportioning posts within central government ministries.

Sihanouk and Phnom Penh also have a common interest in ensuring that the Khmer Rouge do not return to power after the Vietnamese troop withdrawal. Both are prepared to insist on a Chinese cutoff of military aid to the Khmer Rouge once an agreement goes into effect. Hun Sen insisted on the disarmament of the Khmer Rouge forces as a condition for the phased withdrawal of Vietnamese troops. Sihanouk, who has declared that the Khmer Rouge leaders have a plan to return to power after the departure of the Vietnamese troops, also wants the Khmer Rouge forces disarmed. But the Chinese have supported the Khmer Rouge rejection of that proposal so firmly in the past as to convince Sihanouk that it is not politically feasible.

Prince Sihanouk’s alternative to disarming the Khmer Rouge is the creation of a quadripartite national army in which the Cambodian government forces and the ANS, along with the KPNLF, would be able to balance the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk even encouraged Hun Sen to obtain more military assistance from the Soviets and said he expected to get similar help from the United States. Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan has rejected this aspect of the Sihanouk plan, calling instead for a unitary national army in which the larger Khmer Rouge officer corps and troop strength would give it dominant military influence.

A second element in the Sihanouk plan is a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace Vietnamese troops—a proposal that both China and the Khmer Rouge have privately rejected in the past. Foreign observers have expressed doubt that international peacekeeping forces in numbers that are politically feasible would be sufficient to provide security for a national election. Sihanouk, who has expressed a strong preference in the past for holding elections while a Vietnamese troop presence remains in the country, appears to recognize that risk. His current proposal for a three-phase Vietnamese withdrawal would permit an overlap between the international peacekeeping force and the Vietnamese military presence. During this overlap period, the interim government and the new national army could be formed and the preparations for elections carried out.

Sihanouk’s acceptance of a continued Khmer Rouge military force through the electoral period is no doubt influenced by his conviction that some of the Khmer Rouge commanders are friendly to him. Some of them have not only collaborated with the ANS against the Vietnamese and Cambodian government forces but have reportedly used Sihanouk’s picture to gain popular support. (Others, notably those loyal to Deputy Commander Ta Mok, have attacked ANS troops in various provinces.) Phnom Penh, however, is not likely to count on possible splits in the Khmer Rouge army to neutralize its military power. The disposition of Pol Pot’s forces, therefore, is likely to be a sticking point in Sihanouk’s negotiations with both the Khmer Rouge and Phnom Penh unless the prince can prevail on China to change its position on demilitarization of the Khmer Rouge.

The tenor of the Sihanouk-Hun Sen meetings convinced Sihanouk to continue the talks as long as required to reach a settlement. But the prince, who must carry out his own version of shuttle diplomacy, must also bring the Khmer Rouge and their Chinese allies around to accepting the bargain with Phnom Penh and Vietnam. Back in Beijing in late January, he therefore emphasized to Chinese party chief Zhao Ziyang and Khieu Samphan his insistence on the "dissolution" of the Vietnamese-sponsored regime. He canceled the meeting with Hun Sen scheduled for April, expressed the desire to talk directly to the Vietnamese and even suggested that he might return to the presidency of the CGDK.

The Sihanouk-Hun Sen track was thus temporarily shut down, but it is certain to reopen, with or without direct Vietnamese participation. Sihanouk’s offer to enter into a bilateral coalition government with Phnom Penh if Khieu Samphan and Son Sann refuse to participate in the negotiations is a strong incentive for Hanoi to strive for an agreement between Hun Sen and the prince. The first two rounds of talks illuminate the political complexities of Sihanouk’s effort to carry out two separate sets of negotiations that must ultimately be brought together. But it also demonstrates Sihanouk’s remarkable capacity for diplomatic maneuver.


Skeptics are reluctant to believe that there has been any basic change in Vietnamese policy toward Cambodia. They cite Vietnam’s refusal to negotiate directly with Prince Sihanouk as evidence that it is trying to draw the prince into a trap and to strengthen the bargaining position of its Cambodian allies. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea, like any incumbent regime, does not want to bargain away its own existence. Nevertheless Hanoi remains the ultimate arbiter of Hun Sen’s negotiating posture. Its final decisions on a transitional coalition government will reflect its assessment of the relative risks and benefits of a unilateral withdrawal and of a negotiated settlement.

Some Vietnamese officials have been quietly formulating a political rationale for a genuine power-sharing arrangement in Cambodia in the event it becomes necessary. The failure of their Cambodian clients to consolidate their regime after nine years has reportedly been the subject of careful study in Hanoi. The explanation that has emerged is that the Cambodian economy is still at too low a level of production to support a Marxist-Leninist revolution—a reality which, the Vietnamese have concluded, will not change soon.

Hanoi’s posture toward a political settlement during the first three years of its occupation was uncompromising: Vietnamese officials insisted that there was no "problem" to be negotiated. Any talk of negotiated settlement was discouraged by Hanoi’s fear that the fragile new administration, which it was still struggling to stabilize, might collapse in a panic. While Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and other officials said privately that they still considered Sihanouk a patriot, they could not suggest the desirability of negotiations with him without the risk of destabilizing the Phnom Penh regime. Only in 1984 did Hanoi dare to propose a meeting between Sihanouk and Hun Sen.

The first direct proposal from Vietnam for formal negotiations in October 1986 was apparently in response to the CGDK’s eight-point proposal of the previous spring. It was a secret offer to the Chinese through the Austrian mission to the United Nations for a meeting in which the three resistance factions, without Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, would negotiate with the Phnom Penh regime. The offer suggested that Hanoi was prepared to accept at least some Khmer Rouge representation in the settlement and, by implication, even in a future government.

Hanoi was still hoping that Sihanouk would separate himself from the Khmer Rouge and negotiate separately with Phnom Penh. A Vietnamese proposal for a separate meeting between Sihanouk and Hun Sen in Pyongyang in early 1987 was rejected by the prince as a result of his coalition partners’ opposition. After Sihanouk’s resignation from the CGDK in May 1987, the Phnom Penh regime, at Hanoi’s urging, reversed years of propaganda attacks on Sihanouk and began referring to him publicly by his royal title. Phnom Penh’s five-point proposal of October 1987 for the first time used the previously forbidden words "neutral and nonaligned Cambodia" and "coalition government."

Hanoi’s negotiating strategy has always depended on having credible plans to withdraw unilaterally by replacing its troops with those of its Cambodian client. Since the early 1980s the Vietnamese leaders have had extensive plans to build up the self-sufficiency of the Cambodian government troops with Soviet-bloc arms, Vietnamese advisers and an infusion of Cambodian officers trained in Vietnam and Eastern Europe. The 1984-85 Vietnamese dry-season offensive and the construction of a massive border barrier were aimed at destroying the network of Khmer Rouge bases and virtually closing the Thai-Cambodian border to large-scale infiltration so that the war could be gradually turned over to the Cambodians.

The success of that offensive led to the Vietnamese pledge of a total unilateral withdrawal by 1990. Vietnam hoped to demonstrate to the United States, ASEAN and China that it would get out of Cambodia unilaterally, if necessary. At the same time, Hanoi hoped to force the Cambodian government troops to cope with the Khmer Rouge on their own.

The Vietnamese plan has achieved a measure of success. Guerrilla infiltration from the Thai border has been slowed. The system of border defenses has been turned over to Cambodian troops, and Vietnamese troops have been moved to the interior to increase security. The regular troop strength of the Phnom Penh regime has increased from 30,000 in 1985 to as much as 50,000. On the other hand, Vietnamese officials admit privately that Cambodian government troops are hard to recruit, poorly motivated and prone to accommodations with resistance forces, particularly those of the Sihanoukist army. Some Cambodian officers have openly resisted the 1990 withdrawal deadline: in May 1986 a Cambodian battalion commander declared to a reporter that Phnom Penh would request the continued presence of Vietnamese troops beyond 1990 if the Khmer Rouge were still being aided by China and Thailand.

The Vietnamese have also come to realize that the Khmer Rouge are attempting to take advantage of the withdrawal pledge to launch a new psychological warfare campaign. "When the water rises, fish eat ants," Khmer Rouge cadres have told Cambodian villagers, "but when the water recedes, ants each fish." Once the Vietnamese are gone, in other words, the Khmer Rouge will punish those who supported the Phnom Penh regime. Many villagers have become more reluctant to report on the presence of Khmer Rouge troops because of fear that one day the Vietnamese will not be around to protect them.

The Vietnamese have not been able to keep the pace of withdrawals that they had originally planned. The original plan was to increase the level of Cambodian troops to around 100,000, but it is now clear that nothing like that figure will be possible. After several years of staged troop withdrawals that turned out to be merely troop rotations, the Vietnamese finally did carry out a net withdrawal during the 1987-88 dry season estimated at 10,000 to 12,000 out of a total of 140,000 troops. Hanoi could still meet the 1990 deadline, but the risks are likely to be far greater than originally anticipated.

The Vietnamese could simply announce in 1990 that the Khmer Rouge security threat required an extension of the deadline. This, however, would be a costly admission of defeat that would eliminate whatever bargaining leverage remained in trying to negotiate controls over the Khmer Rouge. Uncertainty about being able to complete the withdrawal by the end of 1990 gives Vietnam a strong incentive to reach a negotiated settlement before that deadline.

Vietnam’s interest in a negotiated settlement has also been spurred by its desperate need for capital and technology at home. Major investments, especially from Japanese businessmen, will not come to Vietnam until the Japanese government, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank signal their support by making major loans. That signal, in turn, will not come until the Vietnamese have completely withdrawn from Cambodia.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese party and government leadership has undergone far-reaching changes. At the December 1986 Sixth Party Congress the last of the old guard stepped down. The new party chief, Nguyen Van Linh, 71, is a southerner who supported daring experiments with economic liberalization in the South after 1975. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, Linh has pushed for ideological renovation and candor. Also, like Gorbachev on Afghanistan, Linh has admitted that the continued conflict with China and the Cambodian resistance has been costly, forcing Vietnam to spend a large part of its budget to build an army.

The Vietnamese must also take account of the transformation of Sino-Soviet relations from enmity to near-normal relations during the 1980s and Gorbachev’s determination to achieve full party-to-party relations with Beijing. The Soviets have become more active diplomatically in promoting a negotiated settlement. Significantly, Hun Sen stopped in Moscow both before and after his talks with Sihanouk, indicating that the Soviet leaders are monitoring the progress of the talks independently rather than relying on the Vietnamese. Soviet officials have cited Afghanistan, where Gorbachev has decided to withdraw Soviet troops without assurances on a successor regime, as a model for the resolution of other Third World conflicts. Hanoi clearly cannot count on indefinite Soviet support for its occupation of Cambodia.


For China, a settlement of the Cambodian conflict is a less urgent issue than for Vietnam. Beijing’s position remains uncompromising: Vietnam must agree to a timetable for withdrawal without conditions, and even while withdrawal is under way, China will negotiate with Vietnam only on bilateral issues. But the Chinese perspective has also shifted as a result of political developments during the 1980s. Chinese leaders are no longer motivated primarily by the desire to see the Vietnamese "bled white" as they were in the early 1980s, as most of the emotional intensity that impelled the Chinese in that period has now dissipated.

Chinese policy toward Vietnam has undoubtedly been influenced by the Sino-Soviet rapprochement that began to develop in 1982. By 1985 Sino-Soviet relations had warmed to the point where China had dropped its earlier hostility toward Third World Marxist regimes with close ties to the Soviets, including Angola, Nicaragua and even Cuba. While Beijing has carefully excepted Vietnam from this general trend, the anti-Soviet aspect of China’s posture toward Vietnam has now become much less relevant.

A central feature of China’s hard-line policy toward Vietnam was its threat of further "lessons" in the form of incursions by 300,000 Chinese troops massed near the Vietnamese border. Beijing had assured Prince Sihanouk in 1981 that it would intervene militarily against Vietnam from time to time to support the resistance forces in Cambodia, and promised Thailand it would punish the Vietnamese for intruding into Thai territory. The pledge to Sihanouk was repeated in 1984. But when the Vietnamese overran the border bases of the Khmer Rouge and intruded into Thai territory in the 1984-85 dry season, the Chinese response was limited to stepped-up artillery attacks on the Vietnamese border.

The disappearance of the threat of a second lesson was undoubtedly related to Beijing’s decision to place top priority on economic modernization at the expense of the military. But it was also linked with the changing Sino-Soviet relationship. Although Chinese leaders have consistently maintained that the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia is one of the three obstacles to full normalization of Sino-Soviet relations, Beijing began by 1984 to have its own interest in maintaining the momentum of improved relations. The desire to avoid disrupting that process constrained Chinese military aggressiveness toward Vietnam during the 1984-85 Vietnamese dry-season offensive in Cambodia. Vice Premier Ivan Arkipov, the highest-level Soviet visitor to China in 15 years, was about to arrive in Beijing, and the Chinese apparently decided against any major attack on Vietnam rather than see the trip canceled, as had happened the previous year.

In January 1988 the Sino-Vietnamese border was extraordinarily quiet. A Chinese diplomat confirmed that the fighting on the border was "lower" than in previous years, citing a declining level of fighting in Cambodia and an improved atmosphere on the "global level." In mid-March, however, Sino-Vietnamese naval clashes near the contested Spratly Islands demonstrated the difficulty of reducing tensions between the two countries.

Moreover, Chinese relations with Thailand and the Khmer Rouge tend to perpetuate Beijing’s hard-line policy toward Cambodia. During the 1980s Beijing has developed an extraordinarily close security relationship with Thailand, involving frequent high-level exchanges of military leaders and Thai purchases of Chinese arms. That relationship would erode in the event of a Cambodian settlement.

The Chinese alliance with Pol Pot’s "Democratic Kampuchea faction" also remains intact. Beijing has assured other countries that it wants Sihanouk to lead the future government of Cambodia, but it has continued to protect the freedom of the Khmer Rouge to maintain their armed forces even after the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops. Chinese officials recognize privately that elections will tend to reflect the political-military balance in the country, and that Khmer Rouge military superiority and financial resources will give them a significant advantage over other factions. While they do not want a blatant grab for power by Pol Pot, there are obvious advantages for China in having a strong military faction in Cambodia that is allied with it. Despite suggestions from Sihanouk and ASEAN officials over the years that Pol Pot and Ieng Sary be removed from leadership posts, Chinese officials are unlikely to agree. Chinese interests in Cambodia have, in fact, been closely linked with those of the Pol Pot leadership group for the past decade.

In sum, the willingness of the Chinese to end its military assistance to the Khmer Rouge or to force the Khmer Rouge to accept restrictions on their freedom of action as part of a settlement remains uncertain at best. A bilateral agreement between Sihanouk and Hun Sen would certainly increase the pressure on Beijing to make such hard decisions. Given the balance of Chinese interests, however, it may require additional incentives and the active participation of other external actors, notably the United States, to overcome Beijing’s reluctance to force its ally’s hand.


For nearly a decade, the United States has deferred to ASEAN and China in its policy toward the Cambodian conflict, shunning any independent diplomatic effort to facilitate a negotiated settlement. For the last two years, some American officials have been arguing privately that the United States should discuss with both ASEAN and China the problem of how to deal with the Khmer Rouge in a settlement. But although the United States has raised its concerns about the matter with the relevant governments, it has never taken the step of suggesting modalities for a solution or asking its friends to do so.

The United States has a major strategic interest at stake in resolving the Cambodia conflict through Sino-Vietnamese accommodation. That conflict led to the introduction and consolidation of the Soviets’ largest concentration of military power outside the Soviet Union itself, with an average of 22 to 25 ships operating out of Cam Ranh Bay at any given time. Only an agreement that restores normal Sino-Vietnamese relations and integrates Vietnam into the Pacific trade and investment system can begin to reverse the extreme Vietnamese dependence on the Soviet Union against China.

The main obstacle to a U.S. diplomatic initiative on Cambodia in recent years has been the reluctance to usurp ASEAN’s leading role. In fact, ASEAN states have long been asking the United States to take some responsibility. During the 1984 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Jakarta, the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore urged Secretary of State George Shultz to push China to drop its stance of non-negotiation. "Let’s face it," said one ASEAN diplomat, "we are only a small power. The U.S. can have a lot more influence on the Chinese than we can."

The United States has also been held back by the belief that it cannot be a "major player" in the conflict, since it does not have large-scale aid to offer as carrots for Hanoi. But the United States in fact has been the arbiter of the capitalist world’s economic relations with Hanoi through its influence with Japan and the multilateral financial institutions. If used wisely, this diplomatic clout could give the United States effective leverage on the policies of both China and Vietnam.

Up to now, U.S. policy has been to support normal economic relations with Vietnam only after a Cambodian settlement has been reached and Vietnamese troops have been completely withdrawn. Thus the flow of capital to Vietnam depends, in effect, not only on decisions by Hanoi but on those by Beijing. What is needed is a diplomatic position that provides incentives for both of the major players to reach an accommodation. The United States could consult with Prince Sihanouk, ASEAN and other supporters of the ASEAN position, including Japan, to formulate specific terms of a settlement providing reasonable guarantees against a Khmer Rouge military takeover.

If Vietnam did agree to those terms, normalization of economic relations could begin after a given interval, perhaps three to six months, even if China and the Khmer Rouge have not agreed to their side of the bargain. Such a proposal would give China both the incentive and the time to ensure that an agreement providing for a total Vietnamese withdrawal on a timetable is negotiated and signed before the normalization process begins. China would certainly push the Khmer Rouge to compromise on military safeguards and facilitate the negotiated withdrawal of Vietnamese troops in order to avoid a humiliating political defeat as the Vietnamese break out of the isolation China has successfully imposed for nearly a decade.

A constructive U.S. role in the Cambodian peace process would require only that Washington exercise influence to formulate a settlement consistent with the interests of the United States, ASEAN and the Western allies, as well as with Cambodian self-determination. Such a diplomatic role would be behind the scenes and multilateral in character. It would not take the initiative away from Prince Sihanouk, but would strengthen his bargaining position vis-à-vis both Hanoi and Beijing.

The United States obviously should not try to play the role of regional hegemonist in Southeast Asia that it played in the 1950s and 1960s, ultimately without success. Its military power, though still dominant in the region, is of very limited value in attempting to restore peace in a regional conflict like that in Cambodia. But the dynamics of the negotiations suggest that there is a need for a U.S. role in Southeast Asia that is neither belligerent nor passive. U.S. economic and political ties with both regional and external states are still the basis for a strong diplomatic effort toward regional peace and stability.

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  • Gareth Porter is on the faculty of The American University’s School of International Service. He edited Vietnam: A History in Documents.
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