The United States and its Southeast Asian allies are grouping for new ways to drive the Vietnamese out of Cambodia. But despite much real unity among the five nations of the US-supported Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), these nations differ on how to contain the Vietnamese.
The Cambodian "united front" against the Vietnamese, which several ASEAN nations support, has been slow to materialize. The Vietnamese, meanwhile, look as if they are digging in for good.
The foreign ministers of the ASEAN countries are currently meeting in the hot and humid city of Manila to consider this and other questions. US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. is here, fresh from meetings with Chinese officials in Peking. Haig is encouraging the idea of stronger pressure on the Vietnamese.
Always in the background are the Chinese, who think that talk of a political settlement with the Vietnamese over Cambodia is based on illusions and that everyone should get behind the Cambodian resistance fighters.
But perhaps in part because those very resistance fighters have had trouble uniting, the ASEAN foreign ministers have agreed on a conciliatory-sounding appeal to Vietnam to attend next month's international conference on Cambodia and to accept a political solution that would provide for a withdrawal of Vietnamese troops. If a political solution fails, US officials say, the United States will have to reassess its options and consider, among other things, supplying arms to the Cambodian insurgents fighting the Vietnamese in Cambodia.
For the moment, the US is following ASEAN's lead. As a senior American official explained it, the ASEAN nations are the "cutting edge" on a number of issues, including the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. But the official said that Haig found while he was in Peking that the US and China were in "very, very close parallel" on this issue.
On June 16, John Holdridge, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said American experience with the Vietnamese suggests they are "very tough people."
"If you give them what they want, this doesn't make them change their policy in anyway," Mr. Holdridge declared at an American Club luncheon in Peking.
"So we will seek, if we can, to find ways to increase the political, economic , and, yes, military, pressures on Vietnam, working with others and in ways which will bring about, we hope, some change in Hanoi's attitude toward the situation."
The US has already been attempting through international organizations to cut off economic aid to Vietnam. But indications from the United Nations are that this strategy has been only partially successful. Although the World Bank and Asian Development Bank have halted any new loans to Vietnam, UN agencies will apparently continue to provide aid.
Another weak link in the "increasing pressure" strategy is the nascent coalition or "united front," of Cambodian resistance fighters, which has the apparent blessing of the United States and several of the ASEAN nations. The respectable Son Sann, chairman of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF), is reluctant to collaborate with the notorious Khmer Rouge. One of Son Sann's aides told the Far Eastern Economic Review last month that the Khmer Rouge would "murder us in our sleep." But the Chinese- backed Khmer Rouge happen to be the strongest force fighting the Vietnamese.
"It's a pity that some people have illusions about compromise over Cambodia," said an influential Chinese in Peking earlier this week. "We think from a global, strategic point of view, there is no need to settle this problem in an urgent way. . . . The Soviets have this burden on their shoulders. We don't want to relieve them of it."
In other words, the Chinese believe that "bleeding" the Vietnamese in Cambodia is one way of typing them down and diverting their energies, and by extension, draining the energies of Hanoi's Soviet backers. According to Chinese estimates, the Soviets are sending $3-to-$5 million a day to keep Vietnam armed and alive. American estimates run even higher.
But within ASEAN, two nations have reservations about pursuing the policy that suits the Chinese. Indonesia and Malaysia, both nations with influential Chinese minorities and histories of internal strife involving the Chinese, do not want the Vietnamese to be vanquished only to see the Chinese gain in influence. But Thailand and Singapore are said to advocate a hard line toward Hanoi. The Philippines seems to lean their way.
In his talks here, Secretary Haig is attempting to convince the ASEAN foreign ministers that they must focus first of all not on the Chinese but on the Soviet and Vietn amese threat.