Peace Winds in Asia

October 25, 1991

Two years after the Cold War fizzled out in Eastern Europe, the same winds are blowing through Asia. The Soviet withdrawal of power that freed an empire in Europe is taking similar effect in the East. It is reflected in the 19-nation peace treaty for Cambodia, in U.S. overtures toward Vietnam and in the remarkable North Korean gesture toward a treaty with South Korea. These nations lie near the other Communist superpower, China, but it is a China that sought its own peace and is too preoccupied internally to perform its former external role.

The Cambodia treaty caps years of fruitless negotiation. It harnesses a government, installed by a Soviet-backed Vietnam, to nationalist movements including the Khmer Rouge, which was armed by China and Thailand. The symbolic unifying figure is Norodom Sihanouk, former king and prime minister, victim and ally of the Khmer Rouge, valued by all sides and trusted by none. The agreement is that the United Nations administer the country while forces withdraw, an election is held and refugees return. It is fragile because the former ruling and genocidal Khmer Rouge, despite its protestations, is still run by the infamous Pol Pot.

Nonetheless, this treaty allowed Secretary of States James A. Baker III to announce an effort to normalize relations with Vietnam, phased to coincide with treaty implementation. Normalization was pursued and dropped in the late 1970s when the Carter administration gave greater priority to China. Since then, Washington has rationalized non-recognition on Vietnam's imperialism in Cambodia and on demands for information on Americans missing in action in the Vietnam war.

In fact, the U.S. government has believed Hanoi was cooperating on MIAs for years. Normalization would put Americans in place to pursue every report. Linking U.S.-Vietnamese relations to Cambodian affairs is chancy, however, because the Cambodian treaty might break down through no fault of Hanoi. The sooner Washington and Hanoi exchange embassies, the better the U.S. can budge Vietnam toward democracy and the better U.S. firms can compete in an opening market.

The Korean breakthrough -- if it proves to be that -- also comes because Moscow and Beijing withdrew support of confrontation. The Communist dictator Kim Il-sung is still unpredictable. But in the fourth prime ministerial meeting between the two Koreas in 14 months, the North renounced its intention to overthrow South Korea and pledged to help unify divided families. A treaty of non-aggression and cooperation is being drafted. There is a long way to go. North Korea still refuses to allow inspection of its ominous nuclear establishment.

It is too early for the U.S. to march out. But the trend throughout East Asia is clear. If it continues, China will soon be surrounded by countries that made peace with the West and each other. Even isolationist China could not remain unaffected.

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