275. Telegram From the Embassy in China to the Department of State1

6617. For Assistant Secretary Holbrooke from Ambassador. Subject: Sino-Vietnamse Confrontation: Policy Implications. Ref: A) State 238556, B) Bangkok 35321.2

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1. (S—entire text)

2. We are in substantial agreement with the analysis in your memorandum to the Secretary (Ref A), but the proposed action recommendations do not in our view get to the heart of the problem or adequately reflect the gravity of the crisis that may develop. From our perspective, the focal point for our efforts to cope with the likely dry season crisis in Indochina must center on the presence and activities of Vietnamese troops in Kampuchea. Unless we act now to mount pressure on Hanoi over this issue, we will be ill positioned to deal with Beijing’s likely counteractions, which could have dangerous consequences.

3. As a minimum, I feel we should alter our approach in certain key respects. We should make it clear in our public and private statements that withdrawal of foreign troops from Kampuchea is a precondition for a political settlement. Secondly, we should insist on a commitment for troop withdrawal from Kampuchea as a precondition for a ceasefire. Unless we establish these minimum linkages, our approach will be seen by the Chinese and others as implicitly favoring the status quo, which will simply reinforce the Chinese view that military pressure on Vietnam is the only alternative for the present.

4. We do not pretend that there is a realistic prospect of forcing a Vietnamese troop withdrawal from Kampuchea at this time solely through external political pressures. But there are good reasons for focusing now on this issue. We will not only be upholding an important principle (the unacceptability of sending occupation forces into foreign countries); we will also cast in more blatant relief a dry season offensive by Vietnamese troops in Kampuchea, which may have some minimal deterrent value. Of greatest importance, the stronger the pressures we can mount on Vietnam over its troop presence in Kampuchea, the better positioned we will be to deal with the implications of a Chinese troop buildup this fall on its border with Vietnam.

5. The UNGA obviously provides us with a useful immediate forum to fucus attention on the Kampuchean problem. But we may also wish to lean harder on the Japanese over the question of providing aid to Vietnam while SRV troops remain in Kampuchea. And we should consult promptly with our Asian friends and allies over the crisis we see ahead.

6. My immediate concern is over the contradiction that is emerging in our policy. On the one hand, advocacy of a political solution in Kampuchea at this stage, in the absence of realistic political measures that could effect a compromise, implicitly favors Hanoi. On the other hand, our strong interest in consolidiating and expanding our cooperative relations with Beijing at a time when the Chinese are embarked on a high-risk strategy of confronting Vietnam over Kampuchea creates an impression of implicit Sino-U.S. collusion that no amount of public [Page 993] rhetoric can mitigate. Its impression will be reinforced if high-level U.S. visits to the PRC take place during the period when the crisis is coming to a head. In this context, use of bilateral leverage to deter Chinese actions in Indochina would be viewed by Beijing as arbitrary and unfriendly, especially if we had not already demonstrated that we were prepared to go the limit in constraining Vietnamese actions in Kampuchea.

7. Whatever else can be said about the PRC’s approach in Indochina, Beijing at least seems to have a coherent strategy for dealing with the situation. As documented with striking clarity in Embassy Bangkok’s superb series of reports on conversations with the PRC Defense Attaché in Bangkok (Ref B), the Chinese are engaged in dangerous high-stakes game to prevent the consolidation of a hostile Vietnamese-oriented regime in Kampuchea. As already demonstrated, they are prepared to resort to force as necessary to accomplish this objective. Vietnam, of course, is equally determined to consolidate its position in Kampuchea and to bring to bear whatever force proves necessary for this purpose.

8. The PRC’s strategy is both coldly realistic and is grounded in the revolutionary experience of China’s top leaders. To men such as Deng, political solutions can only be expected to reflect the realities on the battlefield (which, in the case of Kampuchea currently favor Vietnam to what Beijing considers an unacceptable degree). Advocacy of compromise solutions is unrealistic unless both sides are prepared to moderate their objectives. And calls for ceasefires and other diversionary maneuvers should only be resorted to if they serve one’s immediate military and political requirements. The Vietnamese have drawn similar conclusions from their own revolutionary experience.

9. Given the irreconcilability of Chinese and Vietnamese interest at this stage, our best available course may be simply to mark time until the scenario in Indochina plays itself out to the point where a political solution becomes feasible. There is force to the argument that since our own interests are less directly involved than those of either China or Vietnam, we cannot realistically expect decisively to affect the course of events. Nevertheless, we have much at stake even if our influence is limited. A renewed Sino-Vietnamese military confrontation could escalate to extremely dangerous levels, could produce a new flood of refugees and displaced persons, and could drag in other countries.

10. Aside from these dangers, the PRC’s strategy is seriously flawed. In the first place, it is almost totally dependent on Pol Pot. Even if the Chinese are prepared cynically to abandon him once he has served their purposes, he may not prove easy to control or dispose of if his military fortunes improve. In view of his past record of barbarity, moreover, it is difficult to envisage a political settlement in which he is [Page 994] accorded any significant role. As a result, Beijing’s strategy makes more sense as a short term blocking action against Vietnam than as a longer term strategy for developing viable alternatives to the Heng Samrin regime.

11. Secondly, Moscow’s support for Hanoi represents a joker in the deck. Soviet involvement could not only upset Chinese calculations; it could also lead to a dangerous game of bluff and counterbluff between two nuclear powers. In addition, Beijing’s strategy is heavily reliant on Thai cooperation, and Thailand may prove less committed than China would like to a policy of high risk confrontation with Vietnam.

12. For these reasons, we can hardly view the developing crisis in Indochina this fall with equanimity, since there are too many elements of unpredictability in the outcome. For the moment, we see the risks of a second Chinese lesson as primarily a function of Pol Pot’s staying power. If, with Chinese support, he can stave off the Vietnamese during the dry season, the Chinese may be satisfied with posturing and low-level skirmishing on its border with Vietnam. On the other hand, if his military fortunes appear in danger of imminent collapse, or if the Vietnamese spill over into Thailand, the risk of a major PRC military strike against Vietnam will be commensurately greater. We see no grounds for complacency in having so much riding on Pol Pot’s fortunes over the next few months.

13. We recognize the complexity of this question and do not pretend to have all the answers. Our ASEAN friends may well prefer to temporize until the likely course of developments becomes clearer. There will be legitimate concern that confronting Vietnam on the issue of troops in Kampuchea will have an adverse impact on Hanoi’s performance with respect to refugee matters. As usual, we may not be the best people to carry the ball since our own motives will be suspect. Nevertheless, we feel there is a strong rationale for moving now along the lines noted in para 3 above to position ourselves for the possibility of a renewed crunch in Indochina this winter.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840150–2480. Secret; Immediate; Nodis.
  2. Telegram 238556 is Document 270. Telegram 35321 from Bangkok, September 8, contains the comments of the PRC Military Attaché, who told a senior Embassy official that China’s overriding short-term objective was to facilitate the survival of Kampuchean resistance forces, and that China might administer a second “lesson” to Vietnam if Vietnam threatened to destroy the Kampuchean resistance or to endanger Thailand. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790409–0573)