NOTWITHSTANDING the furor over Malaysia's decision to push Vietnamese refugees out to sea, Vietnam is the alpha and omega of the Indochina refugee crisis now swamping the international system - the place where it can be resolved. That is the critical fact that must be taken into account as refugees by the tens of thousands continue to surge out of Vietnam and the two other Indochinese states it now controls, Cambodia and Laos.
Vietnam's responsibility for creating the crisis is fully established. Aside from out-and-out political refugees, it is expelling what may yet become a tide of a million or more ethnic Chinese, stigmatized as much by their ethnic background as by their identification with capitalist ways no longer countenanced in Vietnam. The money that Hanoi is extorting from these people as they leave may add up to billions of dollars. A policy of involuntary collective expulsion is unfolding and it is no less loathsome for the fact that Vietnam pretends it is a matter of individual choice on the part of the Chinese. Hanoi appears to have taken a calculated decision to solve what it perceives as a social problem - the difficulty of absorbing the Chinese in the new Vietnamese order - at a cost of what it may feel will be only temporary international criticism. Meanwhile, its invasion of Cambodia has propelled yet another wave of refugees from that land.
Malaysia, with its threat to expel some 70,000 Indochinese refugees who have washed up on its shore, and Thailand, which is now forcing the repatriation of some 70,000 Cambodian refugees, have become the focus of international concern. What they are doing cannot be condoned. But the circumstances that have propelled these countries to such desperate actions need to be understood. These two countries, and Indonesia, have given temporary asylum to numbers of refugees far in excess of their "share," if fair shares could be allotted, and far in excess of their capacity, both logistical and political. Not without some reason, Malaysia and Thailand apparently felt that by being humane and reasonable they would only tempt others to leave the bulk of the problem to them. They are now acting in a way to compel the international community to take notice.
The first requirement, in which the United States has a prime role, is to rescue people who are at this very moment floating in frail boats, unable to find a friendly shore. Then the larger questions must be dealt with. Up to this point it has been the receiving countries and their friends that have tried to cope with the problem. They have failed: The flow, currently running at a monthly rate of 50,000-plus, is too great. Ways must now be sought to bring Vietnam and its friends - in particular the Soviet Union - into the community dealing with this problem. It is costing neighboring countries too much for Vietnam's pariah status to be maintained. Vietnam has created, for others, a huge humanitarian problem. There may be no way to ease it while continuing to treat Vietnam as a political outcast. Vietnam must be brought into refugee discussions with its neighbors. But it will probably be necessary to have political discussions at the same time. This is what now should be considered.