The United Nations conference on Cambodia (Kampuchea) opening in New York July 13 brings into focus the rift between Vietnam and Indonesia, the two principal powers in Southeast Asia.
The conference, which Vietnam has announced it will boycott, was proposed by the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN), which consists of Indonisia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The purpose of the four-day session is to get Vietnam to withdraw nearly its 200,000 occupation troops from Cambodia.
There are signs Vietnam may be using its dispute with Indonesia partly to dissuade Jakarta from pushing too vigorously for Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia.
Vietnam is responsible for the current rift with Indonesia. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnam laid claim to the seabed abutting the northern shore of the Natunas, a cluster of strategically-situated indonesian islands on the southern periphery of the oil-rich South China Sea.
Indonesia held firm to the position that the claim could be adjudicated by simply applying the Geneva Convention to the dispute. Under this principle, a nation's territory extends to the outer limits of its continental shelf, and there is no dispute that Indonesia possesses the Natunas.
Vietnam, however, astonished Indonesia and its allies by trying to apply the Thalweg Principle, which is usually applied to river disputes. Under this principle, a disputed body of water is divided between countries along its deepest channel.
Now senior Indonesian officials say the Vietnamese have indicated they are ready to abandon the Thalweg Principle. Whether Hanoi's new posture is genuine or is tied to next week's conference as a form of leverage on Jakarta remains to be seen. The Indonesians reject the idea that Vietnam has linked the Natunas to the UN meeting.
Using indirect pressure on Indonesia, the Vietnam-dominated government of Cambodia released June 16 a list of foreign communist organizations that sent official greetings to the recently concluded fourth congress to the Kampuchea People's Revolutionary Party, the Hanoi-controlled front which rules Cambodia today. The list, unsurprisingly, included neighboring Vietnam (of course), neighboring Laos (occupied by 60,000 Vietnamese troops), the Soviet Union (Vietnam's only ally in Asia), and such Soviet satrapies as Afghanistan.
But eyebrows were raised when the list included the Indonesian Communist Party, the pro-Soviet faction of the main Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Cambodia's Central Committee thanked the Indonesian Communists "for their best wishes" and said both parties would continue "the struggle for peace, independence, sovereignty, and social progress in Southeast Asia."
Indonesian specialists interpreted this as Vietnam's subtle way of warning Indonesia against involving itself too heavily in ASEAN's efforts to dislodge Vietnam's soldiers from Cambodia.
In 1965 the PKI and President Sukarno staged an abortive putsch which resulted in the collapse of Sukarno's communist-oriented regime. The PKI was decimated and its remnants driven underground.
Jakarta has replied to these developments by speaking softly while starting to carry a big stick.
The Indonesian Air Force completed construction in May of an air base in the Natunas. Fighters and bombers will be based there not only from Indonesia but also from Singapore and Malaysia. The Indonesian Navy is conducting round-the-clock patrols from the Natunas, and the Army has recently staged maneuvers there.
ASEAN has quietly doubled defense spending since the 1975 fall of South Vietnam. Last year ASEAN spent $5.5 billion on arms, up 46 percent from the previous year.
While Indonesia and Vietnam share a heritages as the only two Southeast Asian countries that had to fight to throw off colonial rule, the Indonesians are wary of Hanoi. Indonesia had a battalion of troops in Vietnam in 1975. They were sent in to maintain the Paris ceasefire, but instead saw massive violations of that agreement by hanoiand the collapse of Saigon. During the past two years, too, Indonesia has been a haven for "boat people" fleeing Vietnam.
Clearly, while no one this correspondent spoke to in Indonesia wants a confrontation with Hanoi, the Indonesians are on red alert. Indeed, many aspects of Vietnam's foreign policy today, with its occupation of Laos, invasion of Cambodia, border incursion against Thailand last summer, and seabed dispute with Indonesia, are reminiscent of the expansionist foreign policy which wrecked the Sukarno-PKI regime 10 years before the fall of South Vietnam.