THE TOKYO SUMMIT worked on the Indochina refugee problem but didn't accomplish much. Jimmy Carter opened by doubling the United States' monthly quota, to 14,000. This was good. But none of his six fellow heads of government at the meeting met his raise. They agreed only to think about admitting more refugees, to put up some more money and to get behind the international conference the United Nations announced Saturday it will convene in Geneva on July 20. Meanwhile, people are starving and drowning at sea and finding a wall rather than a welcome if they are lucky enough to reach land.For a crisis that the Tokyo summit described as "a humanitarian problem of historic proportions," the response was pretty routine.
Attention now must focus on the Geneva conference. Wasn't there just an international conference in Tokyo? You may ask. Geneva would be different; the Vietnamese have been invited. It therefore cannot be allowed to turn into a political confrontation at which the countries receiving the refugees would simply criticize Hanoi. Certainly it cannot be the occasion for a concerted American-Chinese squeeze of the sort now apparently contemplated by Peking.
It is not yet clear that Tokyo adequately paved the way for Geneva. For one thing, there seems to have been no public mention of the valuable groundwork laid quietly by the "orderly departure" agreement reached more than a month ago by Vietnam and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That agreement provided a framework in which countries receiving Vietnamese refugees could work out the procedures with Hanoi, but no receiving country appears to have done so. No doubt the Vietnamese are not making it easy, but some of those most involved in refugee work believe that the receiving countries, including the United States, are lagging in this respect too. China is not using the U.N. channel either -- it took in a quarter million ethnic Chinese from Vietnamese last year by land but is only now starting to talk about providing a processing center, not a permanent refuge, for the boat people.
What is the problem? The political community hasn't yet grasped it firmly. It is possible, though, that the administration, burned in its first overtures to Vietnam, overreacted. Thus it has labeled the refugee flow as a "humanitarian" problem, one generated by a state beyond the pale for its own perverse reasons. The alternative would be to treat the problem in some measure also as political -- arising in part from Vietnam's relations with other states. For instance, there is reason to think that one reason for the flow of ethnic Chinese from northern Vietnam to China last year -- a flow that apparently cut deeply into the work forces on Vietnam's docks and in its coal mines -- was an appeal by Peking: a pull as well as a push. This may have had a bearing on Vietnam's subsequent policy toward ethnic Chinese in southern Vietnam -- they comprise most of the current victims. It is hard to believe Vietnam would be generating a similar refugee tide if it had better relations with foreign states, especially with China and the United States.
If this is so, then the refugee crisis must be set, as Senator Edward Kennedy, for one, has been suggesting for some time in the context of larger political considerations. Given the hostility toward Vietnam in this country, that may be hard to do. But if the situation of the refugees, current and prospective, is to be improved, it may be unavoidable.