Key Vietnamese Official Arrives in Beijing for Talks : Unannounced Trip Apparently Is Aimed at Ending Decade-Long Cambodian Conflict

Times Staff Writer

A high-ranking Vietnamese official, reported to be Vice Foreign Minister Dinh Nho Liem, arrived here Saturday on an unannounced mission apparently aimed at ending the Cambodian conflict.

China and Vietnam, key backers of the opposing sides in Cambodia, have refused to comment on the arrival of the small Vietnamese delegation. But it appears to be the beginning of the two nations’ most serious contact yet in the search for a settlement of the decade-old conflict.

Reporters hoping to interview the Vietnamese delegation saw a person closely resembling Liem through the window of a reception room at Beijing airport. But after being greeted by the Vietnamese ambassador and Chinese officials, the man left through a back door and was quickly driven away. Vietnamese diplomats later declined to say anything.


On Passenger List

Liem’s name was on the passenger manifest of an Air China flight that left Bangkok on Saturday for Canton and Beijing, and Japanese correspondents reported seeing Liem at the airport in Bangkok.

Liem helped negotiate a cease-fire that ended a 1979 border war between Vietnam and China. The two countries were allies during the American involvement in the Vietnam War, but they later split, largely over the issue of Cambodia.

The Hanoi delegation is expected to discuss Vietnamese troop withdrawals from Cambodia, the ending of Chinese assistance to resistance forces there and the shape of a political settlement, according to diplomats here.

It was not clear whether the delegation would also discuss a possible visit to Beijing by Vietnam’s foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach. Diplomats in Hanoi said last week that they expected a senior Vietnamese official to travel to Beijing within a few days to arrange a Thach visit.

Prince Norodom Ranariddh, son of Cambodian resistance leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk, said earlier last week on Cambodian resistance radio that China had agreed to receive either Vietnam’s foreign minister or a deputy in early February.

Talks on Summit

Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze is scheduled to visit Beijing early next month for talks on arranging a Sino-Soviet summit later this year. Cambodia is also expected to be a topic of Sino-Soviet discussion, because it has been a key obstacle to improved relations between China and the Soviet Union. Moscow has backed Vietnam’s military invasion and continued presence in Cambodia but now is pressing Hanoi to pull its troops out.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, currently visiting France, indicated Saturday that Sino-Vietnamese relations could also rapidly improve if the Cambodian conflict is settled.

Speaking at a press conference in Paris, Qian said that “the major obstacle blocking relations between China and Vietnam lies in the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia,” the official New China News Agency reported. Qian “stressed that only by solving this problem can relations between the two countries be improved,” the agency said.

Vietnam has about 100,000 troops in Cambodia but has pledged to pull them out by September if a political settlement of the conflict can be agreed on.

The Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh government is battling against various resistance factions.

Sihanouk heads one of the factions. But the Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia with a tyrannical and murderous regime from 1975 until Vietnamese troops drove it from power 10 years ago, is the most powerful resistance faction. China has supported both the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk, who have been nominal allies but are deeply suspicious of each other.

As the search for a settlement proceeds, a key question is whether terms of a peace agreement will include a mechanism to keep the Khmer Rouge from regaining power.

In recent weeks, China has indicated that it would be willing to reduce arms supplies to the Khmer Rouge as a Vietnamese withdrawal takes place, but it insists that the Khmer Rouge be included as one of the parties in any coalition government to emerge from a peace agreement.