China, Vietnam Becoming Better Neighbors, a Decade After Border War : Diplomacy: Change stems from a sense of apprehension over communism's failures. Refugees hope ties will facilitate resettlement.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ngo Van Hai, a worker at a U.S. air base during the Vietnam War, waited 15 years after the fall of Saigon before making his escape. He suffered much during those years. Unable to get a steady job, he survived, he said, by teaching English as a private tutor.

But the wait had advantages, too. When he saw his chance to flee, he did not take a perilous sea voyage like so many "boat people" who have gambled their lives for the chance at freedom.

Hai took the train and bus. The only boat passage was the final short hop from the Chinese city of Shenzhen to the neighboring British colony of Hong Kong, a trip of a few hours.

Hai, 40, could thank the political changes that have swept the world during the past two years for his safe journey. The key factor for him--and several thousand other Vietnamese who have slipped into China and on to Hong Kong in the past year--is a dramatic relaxation of tension along the Sino-Vietnamese border.

Indeed, China and Vietnam, which fought a brief border war in 1979, have displayed a growing detente that draws its strength from a shared sense of apprehension felt by hard-line Marxists in Beijing and Hanoi after communism's collapse in Eastern Europe and political liberalization in the Soviet Union.

The two nations' warming relations could contribute to the possibility that a United Nations-backed peace plan for Cambodia may be successful. Normalization of Beijing-Hanoi ties also could open the door to settlement of other issues dating from the 1970s, including the fate of 260,000 Vietnamese refugees in China, many of whom have relatives who are now American citizens.

Throughout the 1980s, the border between Vietnam and China bristled in a standoff between troops of the two nations. Centuries-old enmities between Chinese and Vietnamese were suppressed but not buried by Beijing's support for Hanoi during the Vietnam War.

Beijing was angered when Vietnam aligned itself with the Soviet Union rather than China after the war. It was infuriated by Hanoi's late-1978 invasion of Cambodia and the installation of a new Phnom Penh government. The border war erupted a few weeks later. Ever since, the countries have backed opposing factions in Cambodia.

But now, besides evidence of improved relations between officials in Beijing and Hanoi, cross-border trade is thriving along the 440-mile frontier, with no-man's-land marketplaces visited by traders from both sides.

In the past four years, China has transformed the small fishing village of Fangcheng Harbor, just 30 miles from Vietnam, into the largest port in Guangxi province. It is rapidly becoming a key facility for southwestern China's overseas trade. Vietnamese ships are still banned. But that may soon change.

"We'll restore relations soon," Zhao Zhangqi, general director of the Fangcheng Harbor Administration Bureau, predicted in a recent interview. "Small clashes are things that happen even among brothers. We're neighbors, so relations will get better again. Once the Cambodian question is solved, there are no other problems."

China has yet to officially approve trade with Vietnam. But Vietnamese cigarettes, straw hats and dried seafood products are among the items that can be found in the markets of Fangcheng Harbor and other coastal towns. Some products come across the land border, while others, according to local shopkeepers, are traded by Vietnamese fishermen who sail unobtrusively into Chinese ports.

The frontier has become so porous that Chinese residents of the border region can travel openly to Vietnamese towns, although officials in Guangxi province say this is still illegal.

"I went to Vietnam last month to buy dried squid and other seafood," said a man named Pang in the Fangcheng Harbor market. "I've just come back. The quality's not so good, but it's cheap."

It also has become easier for people such as Hai to slip north to China.

"First, we came from Saigon to the Vietnam and China border," Hai related in English in an interview at the Shek Kong Detention Center in Hong Kong, where he was being held pending determination of his status as a "political refugee" or "economic migrant."

Hai, an ethnic Chinese born in Vietnam, will be eligible for resettlement in the United States or elsewhere only if it is determined that he fled political persecution, not simply to achieve a higher living standard. Otherwise he may be sent back to Vietnam.

"We must cross through the forest, the mountains and valleys, to avoid the (Vietnamese) communist soldiers," Hai continued. "It took 12 hours. Then, there were Chinese soldiers. They were very good. They showed us the way. They understand, because we are (ethnic) Chinese. They showed us to the bus station. We waited for the bus."

Hai and his friends took a bus from the border region to the coastal town of Zhanjiang in neighboring Guangdong province, he said. There they caught another bus to Shenzhen, where he and 20 other people bought a small wooden fishing boat for 10,000 yuan ($1,920) for the short sail to Hong Kong, where they were detained until authorities can determine if they qualify for refugee status. They financed the trip by changing U.S. dollars acquired before leaving Saigon, he said.

Improvement in Sino-Vietnamese relations remains a sensitive subject for officials in Guangxi. Most Western observers agree that the 1979 border war was initiated by China to punish Vietnam for invading Cambodia. But Beijing has always insisted that Vietnam was the aggressor.

"During the period of war in Vietnam, frankly, the Americans sent troops to Vietnam and we served as (Hanoi's) rear (support) area," commented Wei Jilou, deputy director of the Guangxi Province Foreign Affairs Office. "Vietnamese frequently came here. We supported them, and afterward they turned around and attacked us." Wei said that "in our hearts" the Chinese people "won't forget this." But he also said normal ties may resume.

The signs of progress are unmistakable.

Vietnamese Deputy Premier Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the North Vietnamese army against American and South Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War, visited Beijing in September to attend the Asian Games and to discuss improvement of bilateral relations. A delegation of Vietnamese trade officials made a low-profile visit to Beijing in January.

Chinese Premier Li Peng, speaking with the Bangkok Post during a visit to Thailand in October, stated that "with a comprehensive and fair settlement to the Cambodian problem, China is ready to gradually improve its ties with Vietnam." Li noted that "China and Vietnam . . . have the same socialist system and share some ideological similarities," but pledged that their rapprochement would not threaten neighboring countries.

Vietnam is eager to improve ties. From Hanoi's point of view, trade is already legal and better political relations should come quickly.

"There has been misunderstanding between the two countries on the Cambodian issue, as well as on bilateral relations," Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Van Linh said in November, in a statement distributed by the Vietnamese Embassy to correspondents in Beijing.

"This misunderstanding is being removed gradually," Linh said, predicting that "the day is near" when Beijing and Hanoi will normalize relations.

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe helped promote a sense in Beijing and Hanoi that the two communist regimes must bury their differences to help ensure the survival of both. Besides political benefits, reduction of tensions would enable each to cut military costs along the border and shift resources to economic development.

Most of the 260,000 Vietnamese refugees, primarily of ethnic Chinese origin who fled to China in 1978 and 1979, still live in poverty on resettlement farms carved from under-utilized land. They have no place in mainstream Chinese society, yet are afraid to return to Vietnam. Although some have Chinese citizenship, huge numbers--probably a majority--desperately long to move on to more prosperous nations. Many have relatives overseas, and this keeps hope alive.

"I have an aunt who lives in Los Angeles," said Xiang Guanghui, 22, an unemployed man dressed in a dusty blue peasant's jacket. He is one of 5,000 refugees living on the Liguang Overseas Chinese Farm in the remote hills of Guangxi province. "Her name is Liang Peiying. She came to China at the same time as us, in 1978. But she took a big boat on to Hong Kong. . . . My biggest hope is to leave this country. Anywhere is OK."

After Giap's visit to Beijing, authorities at Qiaogangzhen, a resettlement center for 13,000 refugees near the coastal town of Beihai, began interviewing people about whether they would want to return to Vietnam if Beijing-Hanoi ties are normalized.

"They all said they don't want to go back," said Yi Hai, the Communist Party deputy secretary at the center, which has prospered as a new fishing harbor. "It's because their living standard here is not bad. But it's possible that some refugees at farms will go back."

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