This article is the English version of : Raymond Aron« En marge des combats douteux », initially published in Politique étrangère in 1979, and again in Politique étrangère, Vol. 84, Issue 1, 2019, for the 40th anniversary of Ifri.

The French in 1954 and the Americans in 1973 withdrew from the three countries in the Indochina peninsula, now subject to parties that claim to follow the same ideology. And the wars continue, either between armies, or between an army and guerrilla forces. The withdrawal of the Western powers did not enable the people to decide on self-determination, on their desire for independence or their quarrels. Previously involved in the East-West conflict, here the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians are the subject of the rivalry between the two great Marxist-Leninist powers.

The analyst who wants to score points against Marxism-Leninism can find opportunities there. The combatants profess the same doctrine, which they counter by their deeds. If capitalism is intrinsically imperialist and socialism is intrinsically peaceful, how do these views reconcile with experience? The Viets and the Khmer Rouge, allied against the Americans and the governments supported by them, seem to have foreseen the new power struggle from the day of their joint victory. The Chinese had supported and supplied the Hanoi government during the first war against the French, as well as during the second one against the “puppets” in Saigon and the United States. Four years after the fall of Thieu the Vietnamese were closely linked to Moscow, incorporated into the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) and at the same time deemed enemies by the Chinese, the formidable neighbor they resisted for centuries.

The East-West rivalry obeyed unwritten rules that were more or less respected. The most rarely broken rule was the one that forbade border crossings by regular armies. It seems that it no longer inspires respect. Indian troops, governed at the time by Mrs Gandhi, crossed the border of Pakistan’s eastern province, a province in revolt against the so-called central government in Islamabad, some 3,000 kilometers from Bengal. Should the then “Empress of India” be accused of aggression? Formally, she definitely should be, but what was the alternative? Voters in what became Bangladesh had voted overwhelmingly for the independence party. Negotiations between General Yahya Khan and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the independence party leader and the father of the nation (later assassinated), had failed. The latter was thrown in prison; revolt broke out and repression too; insurgents in the eastern province proclaimed their state, and this provoked resistance and guerrilla warfare. Without Indian intervention, guerrilla warfare and repression would have continued for years. The legal judgment does not leave any doubt; however, the political and moral judgment wavers. In Africa, Tanzania sent its troops, accompanied by Ugandan refugees, to attack Field Marshal Idi Amin’s bloodthirsty dictatorship. The Tanzanian troops have not yet withdrawn and Uganda has not established relatively stable government. Should we applaud the fall of a tyrant or fear the practice of justice by armed forces that set a precedent? If the neighbor of a country that is poorly treated by its rulers sets itself up as a vigilante, the foundation of the United Nations Charter falls apart. And the vigilante rarely acts out of selflessness.

The invasion of Cambodia by Vietnamese troops in some way reproduces the previous two cases. Pakistan’s eastern province was suffering from a brutal military regime, and Field Marshal Idi Amin deserved every punishment. Pol Pot’s regime inflicted appalling suffering on the people. These Marxist-Leninist leaders, responsible for the death of one or two million of their countrymen, were led by semi-intellectuals educated in Paris, who benefited from Chinese support. In this case, all the actors – the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the People’s Republic of China – acted in accordance with the precepts or customs of Machtpolitik, or the most radical Machiavellianism. The Soviet Union sought a trusted ally on a diplomatic and military footing to the south of China. By the same logic, China was trying to break the encirclement and therefore weaken Vietnam, which was won over to the Soviet cause. There remains the case of the two smaller countries, Vietnam and Cambodia. Why did they not both try to remove themselves from the larger powers’ quarrel?

As far as we know, the conflict between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians was not originally caused or manipulated by the Russians and Chinese. Possibly, even before the defeat of American “imperialism”, it broke out on the day the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge came to power. According to Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Pol Pot’s team was obsessed with the Vietnamese threat, and, in its paranoia, believed it was hardening and preparing the people for the ultimate test, the fight for the survival of the Khmer people against the Vietnamese wish to destroy them. […]

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