170. Telegram From the Embassy in Thailand to the Department of State1

675. Subj: Proposed Policy Lines on Indochinese Situation As Seen From Bangkok.

1. Like most analysts, the Thais did not believe the Vietnamese would march into Phnom Penh.2 Nevertheless, they realistically appreciated the likelihood of an eventual Vietnamese victory in Kampuchea. They wanted and worked to get ASEAN and world opinion to constrain Hanoi but were resigned to their inability to do much about it. Thus, while events of the past few days came as a shock, it is not a totally unexpected shock. The Thais are deeply disquieted and concerned, but not panicked. They recognize that Vietnam’s course in Kampuchea was motivated by special circumstances which do not necessarily apply to Thailand. They do not now see the Vietnamese as marching across the Kampuchean border into Thailand, although they are fretful about the long run. Their present concerns are to stem any sense of panic and to do their best to constrain Hanoi. For want of a better alternative and capability and assuming that Vietnamese control will be quickly consolidated, which seems likely, the Thais will eventually be inclined to go much the same route with Kampuchea as they are going with Laos, i.e., cooperation and conciliation in hope of avoiding provoking Hanoi and of having some influence on the Kampuchean situation. The Chinese who have their own axe to grind with Vietnam may attempt to talk them out of this and into cooperation in covert efforts against the Vietnamese in Kampuchea. This is something we should not encourage given its unlikely success and the serious dangers it could generate.

2. We have no certainty about future Vietnamese action. Conceivably the Vietnamese might stop and leave western Cambodia alone as the King of Thailand thinks. Or they might call for a cease fire. Some think Sihanouk might become a means for reestablishing peace. None of this strikes us as likely but we don’t preclude them. Nor is timing [Page 597] of Vietnamese moves certain. All this requires us to allow ourselves a little flexibility.

3. Given the present difficulties, what might usefully be done? Here are our preliminary views: basically we want to try (1) to minimize the psychological repercussions in Thailand of the Vietnamese victory; (2) increase constraints on Vietnam to avoid escalation of tensions; (3) minimize the chances of offensive Thai moves; and (4) prevent a serious decline in business and investment confidence in Thailand.

4. Our comments on Kampuchea should play down worry about the threat posed to Thailand or about Thailand’s future. Let us not resurrect dominoes. Rather we should stress our confidence in Thailand’s basic strengths and in its ability to cope successfully with the situation; we should highlight the vast differences between Kampuchea and Thailand. We should preemptively respond to inevitable questions about our security commitment by declaring flatly that we regard ourselves as continuing to have a valid treaty obligation to Thailand. It is essential to avoid any inference that we are backtracking on the treaty. Nothing could be more destructive to Thai confidence at this time. If we can bring ourselves to issue a strong statement of support for Thailand’s security, as Kriangsak has requested,3 so much the better here. If nervousness here grows precipitously, a statement may be essential. It is conceivable (although at present unlikely) that the Thais will request consultations under Article IV of the Manila Treaty.4 If the Thais appear to be approaching that point, we may want to quietly talk them out of it by stressing the importance to them of avoiding unsettling their own population.

5. We need to impress on Hanoi the force of our and international condemnation of its actions. Despite our distaste for the Pol Pot government, we must continue to loudly and roundly condemn this act of external aggression. (State 0045135 is a welcome effort in that direction.) From behind the scenes we should encourage the Thais and other like-minded states within the grouping to produce an ASEAN condemnation of Hanoi and its violation of its peaceful intent. We should urge others to contribute to this effort and we must consider whether we want to get others to suspend aid to Vietnam. We should work to [Page 598] provide Sihanouk the Security Council forum to denounce Vietnamese aggression, not so much as a representative of the Pol Pot regime but as the most prominent and widely respected Cambodian of our time speaking on behalf of his people. (We see no advantage in attempting to preserve a Pol Pot regime in exile and should therefore refrain from getting involved in a credentials or any other legalistic struggle on its behalf.) But we should avoid an embrace of the Prince. Hanoi is probably braced for an international storm and to let it off lightly publicly would constitute even more dangerous encouragement for future adventures by Hanoi and anyone else. Conversely, an international uproar backed by reduced assistance may enhance chances of Vietnam acting a little more prudently in its new position of dominance in Cambodia. I leave it to others to determine whether the U.S. is in a position to go to Hanoi and tell them to lay off Thailand.

6. Kriangsak has also asked us to make some material gesture in the security field, both to quiet his generals and maintain public confidence. Our bureaucratic response to Thailand in this period of heightened Indochinese tension was to cut back on Vice President Mondale’s promise that we would keep FMS levels at $30 million annually. That level was reduced to $24 million in FY 1979. So much for our bureaucratic sensitivities.

7. Nevertheless it is necessary to be cautious in this area. Even if we were able or so inclined I do not think it prudent to open up the old arms cornucopia. The Thais have to get away from their fond notions of a US or Chinese deus ex machina. They must work on their domestic problems and enhance their security. But they need above all now to preserve their psychological confidence and sense of security. I think we could usefully contribute to that by scrounging around for another $10 million in FMS credits in FY 19796 (despite it all being orally doled out) and seeing what items in the pipeline, as they requested, could be delivered quickly.

8. We should consult with the Japanese to get them to use Kriangsak’s visit next week in a manner which would contribute to Thai and investor confidence. Rhetoric will be important, but some concrete things they could do would be to provide more generous concessional assistance than now planned. Conversely, they might but probably won’t suspend their aid to Vietnam as a sanction against its behavior in Kampuchea.

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9. We will have to do some rethinking of how we play the Kriangsak visit and I will be sending in some notions over the next week or so. Kampuchea developments obviously force some recasting of this visit to Washington, but we should do what we can to avoid public focus only on security issues. Thai agriculture development programs are vital and need support. Economic development also importantly depends on an uninterrupted flow of domestic and foreign investment. We must keep in mind the need to preserve business confidence in Thailand, to avoid the hiatus of growth which took place in the 1975–76 aftermath of the fall of Vietnam. An economic downturn against the background of Kampuchea could be profoundly destabilizing. A failure to maintain confidence would also encourage a coup by military hardliners and rightists which would increase chances of Thai adventurism and dangerously escalate tensions. A realistic but accommodating U.S. position diminishes, but does not eliminate, this worrisome prospect.

10. These are our quick preliminary thoughts and we will want to refine them as the situation becomes clearer. However cautious the Thais are we want to stress the importance of discouraging Thailand from crawling into the Chinese bed on Kampuchea. Whatever any short-term gains, nothing could be more threatening to Thailand’s long-term prospects as its participation in the Sino-SRV/Soviet confrontation.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron File, Box 56, Vietnam, 1978–1979. Secret; Niact Immediate; Exdis. An unknown hand wrote at the top of the page, “Show to Les Denend, particularly Para. 7.”
  2. Beginning December 25, 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Kampuchea, overthrew the Khmer Rouge, and occupied the country. In January, the pro-Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea was established. See Documents 3638.
  3. Telegram 674 from Bangkok, January 8, reported that Kriangsak requested a U.S. statement of support for Thailand and material manifestation of support through increased FMS credits. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790009–0699)
  4. Article IV of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty addresses how member countries should respond to armed aggression within the treaty area.
  5. Telegram 4513 to Bangkok and Rangoon, January 8, contained press guidance on Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790009–0450)
  6. Telegram 12409 to Bangkok, January 17, promised an additional $6 million in FMS support for FY 1979. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790023–0086)