The United States, China, and the noncommunist countries of Southeast Asia face a test next week. The question is how closely they can cooperate to get some 200,000 Vietnamese troops out of Cambodia.
There is little expectation that the United Nations conference beginning July 13 will actually produce a settlement guaranteeing an independent Cambodia.For one thing, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and the Vietnamese- aligned Cambodian government in Phnom Penh all refuse to attend.
But any plan proposed by the conference could set the stage for the next act in the diplomatic and military battle pitting the US, China, and noncommunist Southeast Asia against the Soviet Union and Vietnam.
US officials have stressed that good relations with the Soviet Union can be restored only with progress on the twin issues of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.
Next week's conference is expected to produce a formula for a free and independent Cambodia. Members of the five-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hope that with a UN stamp of approval the plan could become the foundation for direct talks with Vietnam and possibly the Vietnamese-aligned Phnom Penh government.
For this approach to succeed, China, the US, and ASEAN (Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines) will have to bridge their differences.
ASEAN supports a compromise settlement recognizing Vietnam's desire for security from China. Thus it calls for international guarantees to replace Vietnamese occupation forces and prevent a new reign of terror by the ousted China-backed Khmer Rouge. ASEAN recognizes that Cambodia should not be used by China as a base against Vietnam.
China is less interested in compromise. It sees Vietnam's costly occupation of Cambodia since the invasion of early 1979 as an opportunity to "bleed" the Soviet Union by bogging it down in support of Vietnam.
The US stands somewhere in the middle. It backs ASEAN's call for compromise while supporting China's efforts to bleed Vietnam. The US view is that only continuing pressure will force Vietnam to withdraw its troops and agree to a compromise settlement.
The UN conference originated in last fall's General Assembly resolution in wich 97 of 142 voting governments called for a special conference on Cambodia. The vote was a victory for ASEAN and its allies, which wanted the Cambodian issue internationalized.
In contrast Vietnam, the Soviets, and their allies want Cambodia treated as a "regional" problem. They want a limited conference of representatives of ASEAN countries and representatives of Vietnam, Laos, and the Vietnam-aligned Phnom Penh government.
In preparing for the conference ASEAN has led. At a June meeting in Manila, ASEAN foreign ministers spelled out "a framework for a lasting solution" for Cambodia.It is said to call for a cease-fire and phased withdrawal of Vietnamese troops, together with the introduction of an international peace-keeping force. This would disarm contending Cambodian factions and open the way for an interim administration to organize free elections.
A neutral administrator would run the transition government, as Lord Soames did in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia).
There is little expectation that Vietnam would agree. But within ASEAN there is some hope it could become the basis for negotiations. Thus ASEAN foreign ministers have already decided to set up a committee to carry on the work of next week's conference.
Conference preparations have again highlighted disagreements in ASEAN.
Singapore and Thailand, hard-liners within ASEAN, have stressed the need to keep the pressure on Vietnam by supporting efforts toward a united front of anti-Vietnamese forces. Under this formula the China-supported, Khmer Rouge and noncummunist groups such as that led by Prince Sihanouk would be encouraged to join forces.
In contrast Indonesia and Malaysia have stressed the need not to push Vietnam too hard.This, they say, could increase Vietnam's dependence on the Soviet Union and cause Vietnam to grant the Soviet's additional military base privileges.
But differences of nuance have not kept ASEAN from seeking a common approach.
Still, there has been some concern over US policy. When US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. announced the US could "in principle" sell China arms, reactions were mixed.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Mochtar Kusumaatmaja said this could frighten Vietnam and push it closer to the Soviet Union.
But a Singaporean official is quoted as welcoming the American decision as an added pressure on Vietnam to compromise.
So far the progress toward an anti-Vietnamese united front has been limited. China offers arms as a lure for anticommunist groups to cooperate with the Khmer Rouge. The US supports China's policy but so far refuses to supply guns of its own.
Noncommunist leaders like Son Sann of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front and Prince Sihanouk want stronger assurances of arms and changes in the Khmer Rouge leadership before they cooperate fully.