The United States is playing a cynical and dangerous game in Southeast Asia. Disclaiming any right to an independent foreign policy in the region, it is hiding behind its allies, China and ASEAN, in a scorched-earth policy that is designed to leave Vietnam in ruins and bleed the Soviet Union. Its role is contributing to the volatility of the area and is costly in lives, dollars, and the moral claim of its foreign policy.
The US has been consistently belligerent toward Vietnam long after being so was in its interest. After the communist victories across Indochina in l975, the US was virtually alone in the world refusing to acknowledge the simple facts of the situation by recognizing the governments that ruled Vietnam and Cambodia. We have maintained complete embargoes since 1975 which have severely limited even private humanitarian assistance from reaching both desperately poor countries. (The embargoes, appropriately enough, are based on their own legal fiction: a continuing ''national emergency'' in force since the beginning of the Korean war.) In these embargoes, too, there has been little support in the international community for the US position.
Ironically, although the US fought the Vietnam war to prevent the spread of Chinese communism across Asia, its policy has since revolved around appeasing Chinese interests so as not to disturb its political partnership elsewhere. In Indochina, we are currently taking a decidedly back seat role with a reckless driver.
Shortly after taking power in 1975, the now infamous Cambodian regime of Pol Pot began large-scale military attacks on Vietnam, ostensibly to reclaim provinces, comprising most of southern Vietnam and including Saigon, lost to the Vietnamese centuries ago. China was then and is now the sole international benefactor and sponsor of the Pol Pot forces.
In December 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, deposed the Pol Pot regime - which had killed between 500,000 and 1.5 million of its own people - and installed in its place a regime it could control. Two events followed in quick succession. The US solidified its relationship with China by establishing formal diplomatic relations in January, and in February China launched an attack on Vietnam to ''teach it a lesson.'' Presumably the lesson was learned post-mortem by the 50, 000 who died on both sides.
Since 1979 there have been three main components to US policy. We have continued to refuse to recognize the government of Vietnam. Secondly, we have supported the credentials of the Pol Pot regime at the United Nations, despite the truly genocidal nature of their reign and their rebel's status in the jungles of Cambodia.
But the true force of current American policy is felt elsewhere. Our continuing embargoes have denied both Cambodia and Vietnam the basic tools and technology they need to help rebuild shattered societies. After the starvation resulting from the Pol Pot regime became well known and United States and international emergency relief efforts began to have an effect in 1979 and 1980, the State Department issued regulations barring any government or private assistance once the Cambodian population was ''close to subsistence.''
Our government's humanitarian mission in Cambodia is accomplished, then, when the people are not quite able to meet their most basic needs. Providing for people to live near or even at the margin may sustain humanity but it is far from humane.
Administration attitudes toward humanitarian assistance to Vietnam are perhaps even more Draconian. State Department policy reads: ''In the event of documented evidence of large-scale natural disaster in Vietnam, the provision of a token amount of disaster relief can be considered in the light of the general diplomatic situation at the time, particuarly vis-a-vis Kampuchea.''
The kinds of aid allowed are also sharply circumscribed by the same regulations. Any aid for the ''rehabilitation or development'' of Cambodia or Vietnam is absolutely forbidden. Last year, the Reagan administration was embarrassed into reversing a decision blocking the shipment by the Mennonite Church relief agency of 86,000 pen, pencil, and paper sets to primary schoolchildren inside Cambodia. These educational aids, the administration argued, could not be licensed because they did not directly contribute to the immediate saving of lives. Supplies for the only medical school in Phnom Penh were denied on the same basis.
The present rationale for these embargoes is to pressure the Vietnamese, by increasing the cost of their occupation, into withdrawing 160,000 troops and yielding political power to a freely elected government.
The thinking here is virtually nonsensical. The occupation is costing Vietnam and the Soviet Union between $2 to $3 million a day while the economic benefits indirectly devolving to the Vietnamese and Cambodian regimes from humanitarian assistance to their civilian populations are infinitesimal. In the meantime, the human benefits of dropping the embargo could be substantial.
In recent months, the possibility of a settlement in Cambodia has deteriorated. The undesirable status quo - a foreign occupation force battling the military and political remnants of a genocidal regime - has hardened.
The Chinese and the ASEAN nations have encouraged former Cambodian head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the democratic nationalist group led by former Prime Minister Son Sann to form a coalition with the Pol Pot forces. Two figures who could have potentially led a reconciliation government have been tarnished.
Secretary of State Shultz and UN Ambassador Kirkpatrick recently met with the leaders of the coalition, putting US prestige behind a group which can make no moral and few military claims. We are cooperating with China's short-term policy of fueling a bloody and futile war of attrition against the Vietnamese.
If we are truly interested in seeing the withdrawl of Vietnamese troops and a return of sovereignty to the Cambodian people, we should help fashion a settlement having as its primary component the complete and unequivocal isolation of the Pol Pot forces.
The first step in our new policy ought to be immediately lifting a useless and cruel embargo.
Second, in the late 1970s and early '80s the funds rode the rise in interest rates to yields of 16 percent and more, skyrocketing their assets to over $250 billion in less than four years.