The VICIOUS WAR between Vietnam and Cambodia appears to have taken a turn that reflects well on the discretion of Vietnam. Some of the thousands of troops that heavily armed Vietnam dispatched into Cambodia, which it had accused of conducting raids on its soil, have been withdrawn. Hanoi has, moreover, appealed for a cease-fire, an internationally supervised pullback from the border, and negotiations. This would seem to meet some part of Cambodia's demand for Vietnamese withdrawal, prior to talks. Phnom Penh has not directly responded to the Vietnamese moves, but recent reductions in the scale of fighting and rhetoric may indicate it's considering them.

In a conflict so deeply rooted as this one in ethnic antagonisms, the common communist ideology notwithstanding, it's idle to think that a moderate gesture, from either side, will bring the current episode to a quick end. Yet Cambodia, if its nationalistic frenzy has not entirely clouded its political vision, should be able to see the risk to itself of providing provocation to Hanoi, which has the power and a hearty ambition to dominate the whole of old Indochina. In this regard, it's surprising to read reports that Cambodia may wish not only to define the French-drawn land border in areas where it's disputed or unmarked, but to press a pre-French claim that would include most of the Mekong delta, Vietnam's rice bowl. To put forward a claim of that magnitude is to invite Vietnam to respond in spades. That way lies an expanded war in which first one side and then the other -- Vietnam looks to Moscow, Cambodia to Peking -- might appeal for outside aid. The stability of all of southeast Asia could come to be at stake.

Vietnam's efforts to publicize its desires for a settlement, by, for instance, circulating its proposals at the United Nations, underline the value of drawing an embattled nation into the international community. For its reconstruction and growth, Vietnam depends greatly on access to international credit and technology. This consideration appears to explain some part of the moderation it has lately shown in the Indochina war. By contrast, Cambodia, though a member of the United Nations, maintains no permanent mission there. In this matter, as in its cruel internal policy, it doesn't seem to give a hoot what other people think.