JAKARTA, INDONESIA, JULY 27 -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III appeared today to have mollified Southeast Asian allies critical of the administration's new Cambodia policy but made little headway in an impasse over what to do with more than 100,000 Vietnamese boat people who have taken refuge in countries in the region.
Baker, beginning three days of talks here with foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), stressed that the U.S. decision to withdraw recognition of a Cambodian resistance coalition and to open a dialogue with Vietnam was not a fundamental change of policy but merely a shift in tactics to promote a settlement of the conflict.
"Our common goals remain exactly the same," he said, "and our approach toward achieving them differs only very slightly." He also reminded the six ASEAN countries -- Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines -- that "most if not all of you have already" been talking to Vietnam on this and other issues.
The policy shift angered ASEAN members because they had not been consulted beforehand and because they felt it might hamper the region's peace efforts. Senior administration officials said some ASEAN leaders feared that Hanoi might interpret the U.S. change as a victory and "dig in their heels" and wait for more concessions.
Until last week, ASEAN and the United States backed a three-party resistance group against the Vietnamese-installed government in Cambodia. The coalition is nominally headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, a former ruler of Cambodia, but its strongest faction by far is the radical Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians when they ruled the country from 1975 until Vietnam invaded in December 1978.
Baker, facing eroding congressional support for the coalition amid evidence of Khmer Rouge battlefield gains, took ASEAN by surprise when he announced the policy change in Paris.
The new policy has not silenced critics in Congress. Sixty-six senators this week urged the administration to go further and sent President Bush a letter calling on him to open contacts with Phnom Penh immediately.
Baker, trying to defuse the controversy, asked for a private morning meeting with the six ASEAN foreign ministers to argue his position before the start of the formal session.
Administration officials explained that the policy shift was needed in order to get congressional support for aid to the two small non-Commmunist coalition members, which ASEAN favors. In addition, they argued that the change may spur further diplomatic movement, especially after encouraging signs in Paris last week of agreement between China and the Soviet Union on a strong United Nations role in administering Cambodia until elections can be held. The Soviet Union supports the government in Phnom Penh, headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, while China backs the Khmer Rouge.
Senior administration and ASEAN officials said the ministers were satisfied with Baker's presentation but voiced concern that Hanoi would not cooperate.
Baker's efforts were much less successful on the emotionally contentious problem of what to do with Vietnamese asylum seekers stranded in refugee camps around the region with many more arriving on the shores of ASEAN nations each month.
The ASEAN countries and Hong Kong, tired of the continuing exodus, would like to send the Vietnamese back, but the United States and Vietnam oppose forced repatriation. An agreement reached last year in Geneva set up a program to determine which of the boat people are political refugees and which are "economic migrants" seeking a better life.
The United States and other countries agreed to resettle the political refugees if ASEAN countries would continue to offer "first asylum" to the boat people. The unresolved question is what to do with about 80 percent of the boat people who are determined not to qualify for resettlement because they are not political refugees. The impasse is jeopardizing the accord, with Malaysia already pushing refugee boats away from its shores and the other ASEAN countries threatening to do so.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, opening yesterday's session, said the U.S. opposition to forced repatriation was "inconsistent with internationally accepted practices," including those of the United States, which expels illegal immigrants who are not political refugees. He said the ASEAN countries "see no other way but to reiterate the sovereign right" to block additional refugees from coming in.
Baker, in a strongly worded speech, portrayed the crisis as a humanitarian issue rather than a political one and warned ASEAN against "critical finger-pointing."
"If we start down this path, each of us should be willing to point first at ourselves," he said. "What has each of us done? What will each of us do? The facts make it clear the United States has met its commitments." He emphasized that the United States has more than fulfilled its obligations under the Geneva agreement to take in 50 percent of all those determined to be political refugees and has contributed a substantial portion toward the cost of caring for refugees.
Baker, in what U.S. officials called a compromise, said he would agree to the repatriation of a new category of refugee -- "those who do not object" to repatriation, as opposed to those who resist being returned. But Western and ASEAN officials dismissed the proposal as a semantic ploy and a stall for time. They called Baker's proposal inconsequential because very few asylum seekers would fall into that category.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus said the plan would not address the problem. "If they agreed to be repatriated, then it is no longer involuntary repatriation," he said.
The issue remained unresolved despite several meetings. One alternative being discussed was a proposal by the European Community to provide financial assistance to Vietnam as an incentive to drop its opposition to forced repatriation -- even if the United States objects.