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THE FINAL CURTAIN : Stumbling Onto a Staunch Ally : REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE: SOUTH ASIA

December 31, 1991|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGKOK, Thailand — Vladimir Lenin never visited Asia, but in his diaries and other writings he expressed doubt that communism had much chance of taking root in the region. India, he thought, might be the only place ripe for revolution.

As it developed, the closest Soviet ally in the area turned out to be Vietnam, but the closeness of the relationship turned as much on an accident as strategic policy.

With its policy of supporting "national liberation movements" abroad, the Soviets gave early support to independence leaders from Vietnam in the 1940s.

Most of them were recruited from the ranks of the Communist Party of France, Indochina's colonial master, and they were sent for training to party centers in Moscow.

When Vietnam was partitioned by the big powers in 1954, the Soviets and Chinese threw their support behind the newly Communist northern half of the country, which became known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnam's independence movement, visited both Moscow and Beijing in 1955 and received pledges of substantial aid.

During the war years in Vietnam, the Soviets provided crucial military and economic assistance to the government in Hanoi. Since glasnost lifted the wraps on Soviet history, it has become clear that Soviet soldiers even fought against Americans during the conflict, primarily by piloting MIGs and manning antiaircraft missile batteries.

The Soviets appear to have been motivated as much by rivalry with China as any altruistic support for the Vietnamese cause. Relations between China and the Soviet Union had soured, and warming relations between Beijing and Washington left the Soviets feeling isolated.

After the war ended in 1975 and the country was reunited under a Communist government, Vietnam made a strategic blunder by demanding $3 billion in war reparations from the United States at a time when the Administration of President Jimmy Carter was preparing to normalize diplomatic relations. The United States broke off the talks, and Vietnam was left economically crippled.

Vietnam became increasingly dependent on Soviet assistance and signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Moscow in 1977. A year later, Vietnam became a full member of the Comecon trading bloc of Soviet client states.

Vietnam also became more dependent on Moscow after Vietnamese relations turned sour with Cambodia, where a pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge government was launching raids into Vietnam. Finally in 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and unseated the Khmer Rouge--prompting a brief war with China.

Soviet aid to Vietnam at this time amounted to more than $1.5 billion a year, largely consisting of oil, grain and fertilizer. The amount of military assistance granted was never disclosed, but Vietnam had one of the largest and best-equipped armies in the world, using exclusively Soviet equipment. In addition, the Soviets were granted naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay, a former U.S. naval base.

From 1979 forward, the Soviets established a dominant role with the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh. Because of international embargoes caused by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, aid from the Soviet Union was virtually the only source of trade for the two countries.

With the decline in Soviet economic fortunes beginning in 1985, Moscow began cutting back assistance to its Southeast Asian client states. Finally, in January, 1991, the aid virtually ceased. A year earlier, the Kremlin announced it was pulling out of Cam Ranh Bay.

Both Vietnam and Cambodia now buy their oil on the open market in Singapore. Thanks to a continuing Soviet-Vietnamese joint venture, however, Vietnam is earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year through crude oil exports, which helped to soften the impact of the aid cutoff.

One sign of the Soviet Union's increasing powerlessness abroad came in the summer of 1991, when Moscow had virtually no input into a final peace settlement for Cambodia, despite being one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. According to diplomats, Moscow just went along sheepishly with what everyone else agreed.

All of the former Soviet clients in Southeast Asia--Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos--have since adopted market economies to replace the Communist command economies they picked up under Soviet tutelage.

But ironically, now the protege has broken with the benefactor, and Vietnam is one of the few staunch supporters of Marxist ideology left in the world today. And Soviet influence in the region has all but disappeared.

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