What Chance for Peace in Indo-China?

By David Wurfel. In Peace Magazine Vol.05, No.2 (1989).

It is in part a consequence of Gorbachev’s initiatives, but other factors were influencing the situation even earlier. For one, Vietnamese leaders have finally admitted that the economic costs of maintaining the occupation of Kampuchea are too great, in spite of massive Soviet aid, estimated at more than $2 billion per year. Those costs were exacerbated by an attempt to blockade Vietnam on the part of the West and ASEAN — The Association of South East Asian Nations — Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Brunei.Despite its many holes, the blockade had restricted foreign trade and investment in Vietnam, thus forcing it to remain dependent on the Soviet Union and slowing its economic recovery. Japan has been particularly eager to break that “blockade,” but without a settlement found it politically impossible. And finally, the anti-Communist leaders of ASEAN came to recognize that a prolongation of the conflict would only enhance the position of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge, remnants of the bloody Pol Pot regime, which was hardly a desired outcome. But to see how these factors have impinged, we must review the history of warring factionalism in the Khmer (Kampuchean) nation.

Third Indo-China War

VIETNAM INVADED POL POT’S Kampuchea in December 1978, goaded by increasingly bold cross-border forays from his Khmer troops, backed by a verbal crescendo of Chinese support. Thus began the Third Indo-China War, the conflict between Vietnam, China, and Kampuchea. Vietnam’s legitimizing fig leaf was its ability to find a substantial Khmer faction ready to form a new government under Hanoi’s protection — and guidance. This faction, many formerly associated with Pol Pot, had in 1978 been facing the systematic murder of its members, high and low, by his regime: He believed them to be Vietnamese agents.

The reaction of the West, in concert with ASEAN, was to condemn Vietnam as engaging in armed aggression and, with wide support, to refuse to give the Vietnamese protegĂ©s the Kampuchean seat in the U.N., which was retained by Pol Pot. China went even further. To “teach Vietnam a lesson,” she invaded Vietnam from the north, apparently with quiet U.S. approval. China had expected to force Vietnamese withdrawal from Kampuchea, but at great cost the Vietnamese stopped the Chinese advance; within a few months Chinese forces largely withdrew to the border and the conflict simmered down to intermittent clashes.

Since Vietnam could not be forcefully dislodged from Kampuchea, her opponents turned to more subtle pressures. The Thai, traditional enemies of Vietnam, took the unprecedented step of allowing Chinese transport across their territory of economic and military aid to the Pol Pot group, which remained an effective guerrilla force confronting the Vietnamese. Because of the revelations of Pol Pot’s genocide against his own people, his representation in the U.N. was an embarrassment to the West, so non-Communist opponents of the Vietnamese, including the once-popular Prince Norodom Sihanouk, some members of whose family had been massacred by Pol Pot, were brought into a nominal coalition with (while also remaining in rivalry against) Khmer Rouge; Sihanouk or his designate became the U.N. delegate.

Ending the Stalemate

UNTIL 1986 the conflict was at stalemate. ASEAN refused to deal with the Heng Samrin regime in Phnom Penh (who had been put in power by the Vietnamese); the Vietnamese refused to talk with the Khmer Rouge or Sihanouk; and the Chinese were not talking to the Vietnamese. In fact, for the record, nobody on one side was talking to anyone on the other. The formal positions of each camp made a settlement look impossible.

But in the meantime, behavior and rhetoric diverged. Sweden, continuing a substantial aid program, had never fully accepted the rationale of the blockade, i.e. that it was the only way to force Vietnamese withdrawal from Kampuchea. France was also only half-hearted in its participation. And in 1984, Australia, which had been close to ASEAN, took cautious steps toward dialogue with Hanoi -despite sharp criticism from Bangkok and Singapore – believing that it was essential for achieving a peaceful settlement.

There were also economic motivations for breaking ranks. By 1986, Singapore, which took the hardest diplomatic line against Hanoi, had become its leading capitalist trading partner, next to Japan. Though the Tokyo government restrained Japanese firms from investing in Vietnam, scores nevertheless established offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for trade and in anticipation of future investment. By 1987 Thai businessmen, including those with military partners, disregarded their government’s tough stance toward Vietnam by rapidly increasing both trade and investment, primarily with and in the south. Ironically, the breaking of ranks by those originally a part of the Vietnam blockade probably contributed as much to a shift in Hanoi’s policies as did the blockade itself. The Communist regime was made aware of the economic opportunities that would expand after a military withdrawal and political settlement, as well as of the costs of intransigency, which were much greater than the actual costs of military occupation. For one, agricultural production was not rising fast enough to keep up with the growing Vietnamese population and fertilizer imports from the West were one of the necessary components of plans for expanding production.

The absolute necessity for increased production — if the economy and the regime were to survive — triggered internal reform as well as a rethinking of Vietnamese policy in Kampuchea. And by the mid-1980s, changes in economic policy began to reinforce pressures for changes in foreign policy, and vice versa. Some of the ideological formulas of Hanoi’s leadership that defined the character of the world around them began to crumble. A new pragmatism that was breaking out elsewhere in Communist-ruled societies was on the rise. The increasing pressures on Gorbachev to reduce military expenditures, especially those overseas, plus similar, less often articulated, pressures in China contributed as well to the new climate of accommodation. And Indonesia, long concerned about the pro-Chinese tilt inherent in ASEAN’s strong stand against Hanoi, actively sought new channels of communication with Vietnam and new formulas for settlement. Inside Kampuchea the Vietnamese faced a revival of national pride and of the historic enmity against Vietnam, which would feed the Khmer Rouge rebellion if they did not depart.

Changes in Southeast Asia moved slowly in 1986-87 but developed rapidly in 1988. By early 1989, conversations had taken place and statements had been made which the best-informed observers had thought almost impossible in early 1986. For instance, Premier Hun Sen of the Vietnamese-backed Kampuchean regime was talking with Prince Sihanouk about a future coalition. And increasing numbers of ASEAN foreign ministers consulted with Vietnam’s foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, culminating with a visit by the Philippines’ Raul Manglapus to Hanoi in January. Even more remarkable was the face-to-face meeting of the Thai prime minister with Hun Sen, even though the Thai theoretically do not recognize his government. ASEAN abhorrence of the Khmer Rouge finally elicited an indication from China — which was key to settlement — that it would halt military assistance to the Pol Pot remnants when Vietnam withdrew from Kampuchea.

Creating a New Government

THE VIETNAMESE HAD ALREADY announced in late 1986 their intention to withdraw completely by 1990. Now they have said that under proper conditions, withdrawal could be complete as early as September, 1989. Both sides have agreed as well to the supervision of the final stages of withdrawal and formation of a new coalition government by some sort of international body, perhaps including Canada. Yet many knotty problems remain to be solved, not the least of which is how to integrate the 40,000 strong Khmer Rouge (who remain to a considerable degree still loyal to Pol Pot) into an army and a government dominated by Sihanouk and Hun Sen forces, blood enemies of Pol Pot.

However, the clichĂ©, “where there’s a will there’s a way” applies here. The Sino-Soviet conflict, which was an important factor behind the outbreak of the Third Indo-China War, is being eased. We have already been told that in the expected spring summit between Deng and Gorbachev the Kampuchean question will be settled.

But caution is advised. Even if Sino-Soviet rapprochement can help bring a new understanding between the governments of Thailand and Vietnam, who have traditionally dominated the rulers of Kampuchea, the struggle between Khmer factions — even without foreign backers — is deeply rooted in the blood-soaked soil and the social structure of Kampuchea. As the ongoing lesson of Lebanon should remind us, it is easier for outsiders to stimulate conflict than to bring peace. Peace will still depend in large part on the commitment and the skills of Khmer leaders. It can only be hoped that the recent tragedies will be a strong reminder of the need to protect national autonomy and of the virtues of peacemaking. Canada itself may have a chance to play at least a minor role in the peacemaking. May it be fulfilled with wisdom and independence!

David Wurfel is Professor of Political Science, University of Windsor, Ontario.

Categories Other Asia, Postwar Vietnam