270. Telegram From the Department of State to All East Asian and Pacific Diplomatic Posts1

238556. Subject: China–Vietnam Confrontation: The Next Phase.

1. Secret—entire text.

2. Following is text of briefing memorandum sent to Secretary September 10.

3. Begin text. To the Secretary. From EA—Richard Holbrooke. Subject: China–Vietnam Confrontation: The Next Phase.

While the possibility of a Chinese “second lesson” remains, we believe the odds are against a major Chinese attack on Vietnam this year, in large part because of Chinese recognition of the difficulties involved in a frontal assault across the border in the face of the strong buildup of Vietnamese forces along the frontier.

Reports we have received suggest that Vietnam and China will take the following military moves at the end of the rainy season and the onset of the dry season in October–November–December.

—The Vietnamese will build up and launch a large-scale offensive in an attempt to crush Pol Pot and other resistance forces, concentrating upon western Kampuchea.

—The Chinese will increase their support of Pol Pot and KLM military elements—through Thailand—and try to keep the resistance inside Kampuchea viable.

—The Chinese will step-up their military/psychological pressure on Vietnam through a modest military buildup along the border and by instigating border incidents, perhaps some of significant scale, in order to divert Vietnamese attention and resources from Kampuchea and to strengthen the morale of Pol Pot.

—The Chinese will also try to stimulate insurgent activities in Laos, initiate a limited military buildup along the border and perhaps engage in some minor cross-border operations.

Both the Chinese and the Vietnamese are pursuing long-range goals in their conflict. The Vietnamese envisage consolidating their effective control of Indochina, strengthening their base against China, and establishing themselves as the dominant military-political power in Southeast Asia. The Chinese, who speak in terms of a three to [Page 982] five-year campaign, are primarily concerned with changing Vietnam’s fundamental pro-Soviet policies, and secondarily concerned with breaking Hanoi’s hold on Kampuchea and Laos.

Given these goals, the combination of Vietnamese tenacity and determination and continuing Soviet material and political support, plus the depth of the Chinese commitment to overturning a Hanoi–Moscow axis, there is every reason to expect their confrontation to drag on for some time in various ways, ranging from guerrilla warfare in Kampuchea and Laos all the way to renewed direct military conflict.

We believe we would have considerable warning of any major Chinese movements, as we did last January. The present concentration of Vietnamese forces and weaponry deployed north from Hanoi to the Chinese border would require a Chinese buildup for a major attack of such size (e.g. over one million troops plus air, artillery, etc.) as to be unmistakable weeks in advance. Our difficulty will be the ability to read accurately more modest buildups designed for different Chinese purposes, i.e. pressure but no attack, limited attack, surgical strikes at specified targets. (INR has just completed an excellent study on the range of Chinese military options and the warning we could expect for each of the options.)2

Obviously, a new major conflict would be the most dangerous threat to our interests and to the peace and stability of Asia. However, even assuming that does not take place, there are several negative consequences from a lesser level of confrontation which we, Japan, Australia and ASEAN must be prepared to face:

—Increased tensions inside Laos and along its borders, increasing its dependence upon Vietnam and placing greater pressure on Thailand, including an increased refugee flow;

—The continued destruction of the Khmer people through military conflict, famine or disease (international relief efforts can hardly succeed in face of major fighting); plus massive numbers of people trying to get out of the country into Thailand with resultant political strains for that country, as well;

—Renewed, more serious threats to Thai territory by Vietnamese forces in “hot pursuit” of Khmer resistance forces (a fear expressed to me by Kriangsak last week) and possibly deliberate retaliation for what Hanoi might perceive as an intolerable degree of Thai cooperation with China in supporting the resistance;

—Increased Soviet influence and perhaps military presence in Indochina due to Vietnam’s need for support in prolonged military operations and its need for help in facing a possible direct Chinese attack.

In light of the dangers that either a major second strike or a heightened level of Chinese-Vietnamese confrontation will produce, we must [Page 983] continue to use our influence with all directly or indirectly concerned parties to press for a political solution in Kampuchea. Although at the present time this seems impossible, at least until after the coming dry-season fighting has run its course, we can talk directly to all the involved parties and try to mobilize others to help.

The continuing conflict in Indochina, as well as the refugee and famine problems, should be one of the major themes in your meetings at the UNGA with the Chinese, Soviets, non-Communist Asians and Western Europeans. We need to work to ensure that international community attention remains focused on the following requirements of the situation there:

—A ceasefire in Kampuchea;

—Vietnamese and Chinese military restraint throughout Indochina;

—Pressure on the Vietnamese, Heng Samrin, and Pol Pot to permit an international relief effort to the Khmer inside Kampuchea;

—International assistance to Khmer refugees in Thailand as well as to Thai along the border uprooted by the refugee influx and by the spillover effect of the fighting in Kampuchea;

—The maintenance of a Vietnamese moratorium on organized departures;

—Increased resettlement offers for refugees and financial contributions for refugee operations.

We will be urging Waldheim to take the initiative in pressing for humanitarian relief to Kampuchea, and if possible, a ceasefire. I believe I should meet with Phan Hien, who will lead the Vietnamese delegation, to continue our dialogue. I will stress the importance of a political solution in Kampuchea, of an effective international relief effort there, and of continued Vietnamese restraint on refugees and caution on the Kampuchean-Thai border and in their relations with the USSR.

We should be careful in all démarches to address both the resolution of the fundamental issues and the need to alleviate the immediate effects. We should note that achieving these objectives would favor neither Vietnam nor China but could save hundreds of thousands of lives in Indochina, mitigate the misery for tens of millions more, and avoid the spread of tension, conflict, and misery into the ASEAN states, which are at present relatively calm and where the lot of their peoples has been improving.

End text.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840130–1471. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Oakley (EA) and Lyne (EA/VLC) and approved by Holbrooke. Repeated to the White House.
  2. This study was not found.