MOSCOW: Nov.3, 1978
IN THE PAST three months, a new kind of war has broken the mold of the world's accustomed thinking - large-scale, conventional warfare between communist nations. It all happened so fast, with headline following headline in puzzling fashion, that hardly anyone could grasp what was taking place, or how each event fit into the pattern of other diplomatic and military actions.
The new wars in Asia have much more to do with ancient enmity than with communist ideology. They are being foutht for traditional reasons: national interest, power, spheres of influence and what is known as "face." Moscow and Peking, the rival centers of world communism, each sees itself as encircled and threatened by the other. Their visceral reactions to one another now affect everything they do.
As the events in Indochina unfolded, Washington was normalizing its diplomatic relations with Peking and preparing to conclude a new strategic arms agreement with Moscow. Is choices limited by its own military failure in Vietnam, the United States tried to protect its global and regional interests through strictly diplomatic and political means. Even a show of force, briefly considered as a way of demonstrating the U.S. stakes in Southest Asia, was reuled out.
What follows is an attempt to look back at what happened. It is organized for convenience around seven crucial landmarks in the evolution of a new world disorder.
WITH SMILES, applause and champagne at the Kremlin, an alliance is consummated between the Soviet Union and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev calls the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation "a document of great historic importance in the full sense of the word," and in retrospect there is little doubt he was right.
A twisting path of misfortune and miscalculation brought proud and independent-minded Vietnam to Moscow's door. Conflicts with both China and Cambodia, submerged during the war against the Americans, came to the surface in the mid-1970s. By the summer of 1978, China had cut off its aid and withdrawn its technicians from Vietnam due to disputes in a variety of fields. Border clashes with the ultranationalistic Cambodian regime of Pol Pot had worsened and Hanoi decided that a major invasion was the only way to impose its will. In a search for aid and political backing, Vietnam veered increasingly into Moscow's orbit.
Failure to obtain help from the West was part of the story. Last spring and summer, Vietnamese officials traveled to Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia and Honolulu in a burst of diplomatic energy which paralleled, and competed with, the simultaneous "great leap outward" on the part of China. In Hawaii, a Vietnamese Foreign Ministry official told the State Department's Vietnam, country director last July that Hanoi was abandoning its demand for U.S. war reparations as a prior condition for normal relations.
White House political aides and congressional figures lookes with distaste at another controversial political move before the November election. Moreover, presidential assistant Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had referred to Vietnam as a "sexual aberration" of the American psyche in a talk to congressional aides, had generated excitement and some movement in competing normalization talks with China. On White House orders, the State Department refused to acknowledge that Hanoi was shifting its position.
When Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach discussed normalization in secret talks with Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke last Sept. 22 and 29, the American expressed concern about Hanoi's increasingly large and obvious military buildup on the Cambodian border. On Nov. 1, Washington took its concern to the United Nations Security Council as the Vietnamese Politburo arrived in Moscow.
In Washington on Nov. 3, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance finally acknowledged at a news conference that Vietnam had abandoned its demand for reparations in a bid for U.S. ties. But the pact being signed in Moscow the same day made Washington-Hanoi relations more remote than ever. At the end of the month, the United States told vietnam in diplomatic talks in New York that the treaty with Moscow, as well as concern about the Cambodian war and human rights abuses, now were linked to the normalization of relations. This placed the matter in a limbo from which it has never emerges.
Peking: Dec. 4, 1978
A DECISION is transmitted as U.S. Ambassador Leonard Woodcock is informed that China has accepted Jan, 1, 1979, as the target date for full ties with the United States, and that Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-ping) will see Woodcock shortly to negotiate the details. Amon the small group privy to the news in Washington, there is no doubt that it reflects a fundamental Chinese decision to move ahead rapidly after five months of secret talks in Peking.
The reasons for China's urgency remain a matter of speculation, but the same high-level Chinese meetings, starting in mid-November, addressed both normalization of relations with the United States and the response to the Soviet-Vietnamese treaty and military initiatives. According to postmortem studies by U.S. intelligence, China in late November began establishing communications networks for new forward military commands near its border with vietnam.
In early December, CIA analysts briefed high White House and State Department officials on the dangerous situation in Indochina, including the possibility that the impending Vietnamese attack on Cambodia could touch off a China-Vietnam war and eventually a Sino-Soviet conflict. However, little or nothing was said about these dangers in the course of the intensive Sino-American negotiations on normalization. An official familiar with the negotiating record in Peking from Dec. 4 to the final agreement Dec. 15 said there was no hint in those discussions that China was preparing for military action against Vietnam.
From Peking's viewpoint, a U.S. tie might provide some measure of pause to Moscow in a moment of crisis, and thus become, in a sense, the functional equivalent of the Soviet-Vietnamese link. But normalization of relations with Washington would have to proceed quickly. It would have been for more difficult, if not impossible, once a military crisis in Aisa was underway.
Cambodia: Dec. 25, 1978
AN ALL-OUT invasion is launched as the first waves of more than 100,000 Vietnamese troops roll into Cambodia under the cover of Soviet and captured U.S. warplanes, backed by artillery, armor and heavy automatic weapons. There is little resistance from Cambodian government forces, which melt away to prepared fallback positions in the forests and mountains.
Most intelligence assessments expected the Vietnamese to stop at the Mekong River, a traditional dividing line of Chinese influence, and to rely on a small corps of ethnic Cambodian "salvation" forces plus local sympathizers to bring down the Pol Pot regime. Surprisingly, the invaders did not stop but went all the way. In a swift, high-profile, highly provocative attack, they ousted the existing regime from Phnom Penh, other cities and main roads by Jan. 7. The nature as well as the result of the action almost guaranteed a Chinese reaction.
The signs were not long in coming. Late in December China suspended its rail link with Vietnam under the pretext that a section was broken and unsafe, and early in January it began moving several divisions as well as Mig19 fighter planes and IL28 bombers to positions close to the Vietnam border.
In Washington on Jan. 5 the CIA's National Foreign Assessment Center issued an "alert memorandum" reporting the imminent Vietnamese takeover of Cambodia and suggesting that the Chinese would react with "a strong, localized demonstration of power" along the Vietnamese border. The situation and the aler, which is comparable to a banner headline in the world of intelligence assessments, touched off a wave of concern and U.S. diplomatic efforts to restrain both the Chinese and the Soviets.
In the first fo five messages to Soviet leaders in January and six similar messages to Chinese leaders, the United States on the weekend of Jan. 6-7 expressed grave concern over the possible widening of the Cambodian conflict. The communist powers were told that the United States was making representations to all sides to show restraint because the situation was very dangerous, and they wer cautioned that further military action could have unforeseeable consequences.The Soviets were also asked to use their influence with Vietnam to urge withdrawal from Cambodia.
Particular concern was expressed to the Russians about the security of Thailand, a U.S. ally which borders Cambodia on the west. To bolster this message, Washington asked several European and Asian nations to register their concern about Thailand to Moscow and Hanoi.
The Russians' formal position, also espoused by Hanoi, was that the Cambodian fighting was a popular uprising and that Vietnamese troops were not present. However, in due course the Soviets also passed back nearly flat assurances that the Vietnamese had no intention of jeopardizing the security of Thailand.
The Chinese replied in private as in public that the Vietnamese invasion was not an isolated action , but part of a worldwide Soviet drive for domination. China initially did not say what action it would take.
The first verbal indication came Jan. 8 at the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs in Peking, to a group of U.S. senators headed by Sam Nunn (D.-Ga.) and John Glenn (D-Ohio) and accompanied by Ambassador Woodcock. An official was presenting the long-established position that a Maoist-style "people's war" in Cambodia eventually would drive out the Vietnamese. He was interrupted, to the astonishment of all, by objections from an older and, as it developed, more authoritative figure. "The Vietnamese are crazy. They believe they have defeated the French and the Americans and now the Cambodians, and now they think they can defeat China. They must be taught a lesson. There will be war," he said.
Washington: Jan 29, 1979
JIMMY CARTER peers across the Cabninet table and raises the most delicate, dangerous and in some ways highest priority subject with Vice Premier Deng on the afternoon of their fist day of talks. With more than 20 people in the room, the Chinese leader suggests a more intimate forum.
Late that afternoon, with other business finished, Deng meets in the Oval Office with Carter, Vice President Mondale, Vance and Brezezinski. To Carter's objection that a Chinese invasion risks the dangerous spread of war in Asia and perhaps beyond, Deng replies that Vietnam must be taught a lesson. He adds, however, that he will take Carter's views back to his colleagues in the Chinese Politburo. Although the prospects are grim, the Americans are relieved to know, at least, the Chinese legions will not attack Vietnam while Deng is still a guest of honor in the United States.
For 10 days, since a second "alert memorandum" from U.S. intelligence on Jan. 19, the top rank of the American government had been on edge about the possibility of an imminent Chinese invasion. The trigger for the alert and the cause of the worry was massive, hasty and urgent Chinese troop movements beginning Jan. 16 and involving the displacement of hundreds of thousands of troops and hundreds of combat airplanes from southern, western and even central China to new positions near the border with vietnam. This was far too much for either a show of force or defensive precautions. It was taken as a clear sign that China intended not to threaten but to strike.
High officials considered it unlikely that Deng would endanger his previously scheduled American trip by attacking Vietnam before his arrival. As preparations continued, the confronted the chilling possibility that the strike might come while Deng was on his Jan. 29-Feb. 5 state visit, suggesting U.S. connivance or approval. "We don't know what he is trying to pull," said an agitated official late in January. "He may be sucking us into his attack, hoping for at least an aroma of collusion."
Vance, Brezezinski, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and CIA Director Stansfield Turner met for 90 minutes at the State Department Jan. 25 to consider the reports from Asia. The same day, the Chinses ambassador in Washington, Chai Zemin, was called to the State Department to receive a plea for restraint. Officials pointedly told Chai that Deng must have their message before leaving for his Washington trip.
During his U.S. visit, Deng gave every hint in private and public that action against Vietnam was likely. He told U.S. senators at the Capitol that "We cannot allow Vietnam to run wild everywhere...we may be forced to do what we do not like to do." At a luncheon for American journalists he confirmed Chinese troop movements and said Vietnam must be taught "some necessary lessons."
Carter, on the other hand, said nothing publicly about the danger of war. He maintained that the normalization of relations and the Deng visit would enhance peace and stability in the Pacific. The United States suggested and signed a "joint press communique" with Deng containing the usual statement opposing "hegemony," the Chinese code word for Soviet domination. The argument inside the White House was that any public criticism of the Chinese attack might invite the Russians to retaliate. On the other hand, the U.S. silence seemed to the Soviets and many others a form of acquiescence, a yellow light or even a green light for a chinese attack.
Vietnam: Feb. 17, 1979
STARTING before dawn, a heavy mortar and artilleryu barrage breaks the accustomed silence of the mountainous border. By mid-morning, Chinese tanks are clanking into Vietnam, followed by waves of infantry-men, overrunning border posts and fanning out to new positions in the rugged hills. Before the day is out, Chinese troops have poured across the border at 26 points.
Peking's legions moved slowly but with powerful force to take and hold a 15-to-25-mile strip of craggy border territory. They sent forays to the foothills but made no serious advance to the lowlands surrounding Hanoi and Haiphong, less than 100 miles away.
On Feb. 14, three days before the attack, the third intelligence "alert memorandum" within six weeks on the war in Asia rated the likelihood of a Chinese attack to be at least 60 percent. By Feb. 16, the day before the war began, Washington was so certain that two White House meetings of the National Security Council's crisis unit, the Special Coordination Committee, were convened. Officials were very sure, from a pattern of radio silence and other indications, that a strike was at hand.
Now all eyes swung northward, to the Sino-Soviet border, for clues to Moscow's reaction. The Chinese for weeks had been evacuating civilians, equipment and highly vulnerable troop units from several provinces along the border in anticipation of a Soviet counterstrike. The United States had sharply increased its photographic satellite coverage in this area.
The White House meetings, according to participants, considered a range of possible Soviet actions, including major land invasion, strikes against Chinese nuclear facilities and limited border incursions. None was deemed likely so long as China did not threaten the existence of the Vietnamese regime by assaulting Hanoi. Any Soviet military action would have destroyed the chances for a SALT ii treatly and set back Soviet realtions with the West, thus playing into China's hands.
The White House crisis committee, meeting five times in six days, decided against ordering a U.S. show of naval force in the area to match the Soviet task force, including intelligence-gathering and missile-firing ships, that was steaming to the South China Sea. A persuasive argument was that provocative behavior should be discouraged rather than emulated. At the same time, the United States passed word to Moscow through Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin that the establishment of Soviet military bases in Vietnam could be destabilizing to Southeast Asia and force the United States to take unspecified action to protect its national interest in the region.
The NSC committee on Feb. 21 addressed the trip to Peking starting three days later by Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, which had been scheduled prior to the Chinese invasion. The decision was that Blumenthal would go as scheduled, but that the united states would withhold a date for the follow-up trip by Commerce Secretary Juanita Kreps until the Chinese were out of Vietnam. Moreover, word was leaked that Blumenthal was to carry a message from Carter about the war, and the treasury secretary was instructed to say on the earliest public occasion that "even limited invasions risk wider wars and turn public opinion against the transgressor." In a private talk with Deng, Blumenthal went on to say that the war's cost could be a financial drain on China's ambitious modernization program. "All it means is that we lob a few more shells across the border," replied an unruffled Deng.
Washington: Feb. 27, 1979
SOVIET AMBASSADOR Dobrynin telephones for an appointment with Vance, and arrives at 6 p.m. with a message from Moscow. It is good news. For the first time since before Christmas, the Soviets are offering a compromise proposal to move the strategic arms treaty toward completion. After two months of watchful waiting, Moscow has taken the measure of the new relations between Peking and Washington, and decided to proceed with Soviet-American detente.
The Carter administration's original plan for 1978 called for SALT ii to be completed in the fall, followed by normalization with China around the turn of the year. As it happened, Soviet-American relations and SALT were set back by controversies over Africa, human rights and treaty provisions, and the Chinese in December speeded their drive for full diplomatic ties. The Carter high command went ahead with Peking, crossed their fingers and hoped that SALT would be unaffected.
In Geneva on Dec. 22-23, the American SALT team heade dby Vance found out otherwise. On the verge of a final agreement in principle on the arms treaty, Soviet negotiators pulled back almost visibly. The Americans concluded that the new link with China was the reason.
During January and February, the Russians continued discussions and permitted modest progress on SALT at the technical level, but several high U.S. officials felt they were stalling on major moves until the Chinese picture became clearer. Once China attacked Vietnam, officials saw little chance for movement until the challenge to Moscow's Asian ally had receded.
The Feb. 28 Dobrynin message, followed by a Brezhnev speech two days later expressing optimsim about SALT, were signs that the Soviets had made up their minds. Relations with the capitalist nuclear superpower are of primary importance, they seemed to be saying, and must go ahead despite the Chinese danger. To move ahead on SALT even while China continued to occupy Vietnam made the point dramatically.
On Feb. 27, the day before Dobrynin's visit, the U.S. received the first unconfirmed reports that a Chinese pullout of Vietnam had been ordered, to begin about March 4 Officials wondered later whether Moscow had been aware of the same hints from asia.
Peking: March 5, 1979
AMBASSADOR WOODCOCK and a parade of other diplomats are called to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, after a weekend of well-orchestrated hints from Chinese officials around the world. Chinese troops have achieved the goals set for them, the diplomats are told, and will begin withdrawing from Vietnam immediately. Within hours, the official news agency carries the announcement.
Vietnam has been "taught the lesson," said Chnese officials, using the language of father-and-son or teacher-and-pupil rather than the usual discourse between nations. The words are a sign of both the memotional intensity and the symbolism with which the campaign has been waged. Bloody though it was, the Chinese operation was an Oriental wrestling contest of feint and maneuver rather than frontal confrontation on the western model. The main Chinese armies never left the hills; the main Vietnamese forces never left the plains. Air forces of both sides were much in evidence, but never engaged in battle.
The day the Chinese pullout was announced, Vietnam decreed a general mobilization of men and boys of military age, and warned foreign embassies to evacuate all nonessential personnel from the capital, Hanoi. With the aid of Soviet military transport planes and ships, Vietnam began an urgent redeployment of regular combat divisions from the Cambodian front and positions in the Mekong Delta to new positions in the north close to the Chinese border.
The decisions behind Vietnam's actions had been taken at least a day or two before, but were not rescinded.
Also on March 5, two Soviet intelligence surveillance ships and a landing craft capable of carrying tanks and troops put into the Vietnamese port of Danang. They were the first foreign military craft to land there since the departure of the defeated Americans in April 1975.
The following day a Soviet guided missile destroyer was spotted in Haiphong harbor, in what is said to be first visit there by a Soviet fleet combat ship since the Russo-Japanese war of 1904.
The United States still does not know whether these and later landings foreshadwo permanent Soviet base rights in Vietnam, or only the maneuvers of the moment in support of the Vietnamese war effort.
NEARLY FIVE MONTHS after the Soviet-Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, six weeks after the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, it is difficult to identify any winners in the communist wars of Asia.
China has pushed Vietnam further into the Soviet orbit and created a far more dangerous situation on its southern border.
Vietnam faces far greater dangers than before along the Chinese border; it is bogged down and increasingly stretched thin against Chinese-backed guerrilla forces in Cambodia; its international political flexibility has been reduced and its economy strained. The hapless people of Cambodia are prey to bloody forays by both sides.
The only seeming advantage is for the Soviet Union, which has moved deeper into Southeast Asia. Even for the Russians, though, the risks weigh in the balance, for they are now committed in highly visible fashion to a smaller power whose military and economic needs are great, whose fiercely independent decisions may clash with Soviet global policies and interests, and whose capacity for longstanding rapport with Moscow is doubtful.
For the United States, triangular diplomacy in the era of communist combat has proved to be more nerve-racking than advantageous. With great stakes but without great leverage in the conflict, Washington has had little leeway for maneuver and has seemed to be used, without quite realizing how or why, by the Chinese leadership.
With the 19th century overlay of colonial conflict and the 20th century overlay of Marxist struggle cast aside, more ancient national and ethnic hatreds between Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodians have been reasserted and intensified. Although the sense of imminent great power eruption has momentarily diminished, there is no sign that the loosed emotions are being checked.
Nothing has been settled. Military crises may erupt again. Thailand remains an exposed trigger to direct American involvement. But if U.S. prestige and power should again be at stake in Southeast Asia so soon after their deep engagement and defeat, what would be the real American interest in the new Asian wars? Whose side should the United States be on, and why? The lack of answers is a comment on the immensely costly effort of the past, and it says much about the scrambled patterns of the new era.
At the United Nations last September, while these evnets were about to unfold, and experienced Southeast Asian foregin minister told me, "The big story of the past 30 years has been the East-West conflict, but the big story of the next 20 years is going to be the East-East conflict between China and Russia. That will affect everything from now on." The past months have proved him right, as bullets, bombs and bloodshed replaced ideological struggle among the communist nations.