The formation of an anti-Vietnamese "united front" in Cambodia is being watched closely by both communist and noncommunist governments in Asia. If the fledgling effort gets off the ground, China and the noncommunist countries of Southeast Asia could take heart from the military and economic strain it would place on Hanoi and its Soviet backers via the 200,000-man Vietnamese occupation forces.
The United States has expressed interest in the new front. There are suggestions it is considering granting military aid.
Last week the issue came to a head. Cambodia's former head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, announced in Peking that his handful of fighters in Cambodia would cooperate militarily with the Chinese-backed communist Khmer Rouge and the anticommunist Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF). (A former Sihanouk minister, Son Sann, heads the KPNLF.)
It is unclear whether Sihanouk would be a leader or a "simple member" of the front and whether his forces would integrate with the other elements of the alliance.
Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann have long sought American and Chinese military aid for their resistance forces.
Last week the Prince said that US Charge d'Affaires J. Stapleton Roy told him to form a united front and that "after that it would be easier for friendly countries to help you."
Later, on May 1, after meeting with US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila is reported to have said that both the US and Thailand are considering military aid for the anti-Vietnamese forces. He said a decision would depend on whether a united front consisting of the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk's forces, and backers of Son Sann would be forthcoming.
Thus it would appear that prodding from both China and the US has persuaded Prince Sihanouk that the only way he can get Chinese (and perhaps American) aid is to reconcile himself for a time with a force he abhors --the Khmer Rouge, during whose rule nearly half the Cambodian people perished.
The Prince has met with Khmer Rouge Premier Khieu Samphan in recent days to iron out the details of a united front. Previous talks in March in Pyongyang, North Korea, failed. But the Prince has since withdrawn a precondition that after victory all Khmer forces be disarmed under international supervision to prevent bloodshed.
Meanwhile, in the first sign that China is shifting from exclusive support for the Khmer Rouge to other groups in a united front, comes a wire service report that the Chinese have shipped rifles, mortars, and rocket launchers to the Son Sann forces.
Both China and the noncommunist nations of Southeast Asia want Prince Sihanouk's participation to give the Khmer Rouge-dominated movement respectibility.
Such respectability could stave off efforts by Vietnam's supporters to have the UN General Assembly recognize the Vietnamese-dominated Cambodian regime next fall.
But China, which hopes that guerrilla resistance inside Cambodia will help shatter Vietnam's economy, differs from the noncommunist Southeast Asian countries.
By contrast they generally recognize Vietnam's concern over possible Chinese domination. They favor a settlement to preserve an equilibrium under which neither China nor Vietnam would threaten Southeast Asia.
[In Washington, David Nall, a State Department press officer, denied that supporting the united front was tantamount to supporting the Khmer Rouge. He said the US gives "moral support" to the idea of a united front, but that the front has not really been established yet.
["We support nationalist forces in Cambodia seeking to end the occupation of that country by the Vietnamese," he said, adding that the State Department definition of "nationalist forces" does not include the Khmer Rouge.
[In seeking an end to the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, "We are following the lead of our friends in the region, the ASEAN nations," he said. The Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia constitute ASEAN -- the noncommunist Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
[Asked whether the US was intending to get back at a Soviet client (Vietnam) by supporting a Chinese client (the Khmer Rouge), Mr. Nall said he could neither accept nor deny the suggestion. He would not speculate how polic y would change if the Khmer Rouge were, indeed, part of the united front forces.]