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Thai-Viet frictions threaten to draw superpowers into Cambodia clash

Thai and Vietnamese-led troops stare across the Cambodian border at one another in a stepped-up confrontation that could increase the danger of superpower involvement in Southeast Asia.

For last week's Thai-Vietnamese border fighting, plus pledges of increased US military aid for Thailand, have rekindled the possibility that Cambodia could become a flashpoint between US- and China-backed Thailand and Soviet-backed Vietnam.

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The danger should not be exaggerated. It is still possible that diplomacy could smooth over some of the friction that led to last week's fighting. As of this writing, it is unclear whether Thailand and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees will continue repatriating Cambodian refugees, which Vietnam says are pro-Chinese resistance fighters opposing the Vietnam-backed regime in Phnom Penh.

But for now, at least, the stage is set for confrontation -- not conciliation.

At a meeting of foreign ministers from the ASEAN states (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines) late last week, US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie pledged a stepped-up flow of arms to Thailand, beginning this week. He also reiterated the US commitment to consult with Thailand in event of attack. So far, however, Thai officials have indicated they can handle the situation without US troops. But just how firmly the Soviet Union backs Vietnam remains unclear.

China has also stepped up its warnings to Vietnam, saying it would help defend Thailand in the event of a Vietnamese attack. But so far the Chinese warnings are general and do not suggest imminent military action. China has also praised ASEAN's strong pro- Thai stance.

For its part, ASEAN has closed ranks around Thailand, muting for the moment the voices of Malaysia and Indonesia, which favor a friendlier approach to Vietnam. Last Week ASEAN affirmed its tough anti-Vietnam policy of continuing to recognize the pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge -- ousted by Vietnamese tanks in 1979.

Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila has said repatriation of refugees is continuing, though on a smaller scale. He dismissed as lies Vietnam's claim that the repatriation was done to aid the Khmer Rouge, provoke an armed incident , and thus gain the sympathy of ASEAN ministers and the US at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last week.

Vietnam's Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach made this allegation in a recent, tough- talking interview with the Associated Press in Bangkok. Vietnamese statements have warned of more action to prevent refugees from returning to Cambodia.

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Mr. Thach accused Thailand of deliberately sheltering refugees in the winter dry season, when vulnerable to attack, and then sending them back in the wet season when they could fight more effectively. A Vietnamese Embassy spokesman in Paris claimed Thai rangers aiding the Khmer Rouge had been captured in Cambodia.

The tough talk seemed to indicate border fighting, at least at a low level, may continue.

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