Suzuki trip to SE Asia shows importance of strong Japan

The whirlwind Southeast Asian trip to five countries by Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki ending this week in Bangkok demonstrates just how much Southeast Asians increasingly demand economic, political, and diplomatic support from Japan.

Each member nation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) visited by Mr. Suzuki had a different priority. But most would agree that a strong Japan is necessary to help them develop their countries, to balance growing Soviet military power, and to make up for what is widely seen as a decline of American political and military interest in Southeast Asia.

The Suzuki trip was also a sign that Japan sees Southeast Asian markets and strategic oil waterways as extremely important for the nation's economic, political, and military security.

"The nerve of them," grumbles one Singaporean lawyer, as he points to the tall, white monument marking Japanese atrocities committed in Singapore during World War II.

A two hours' plane ride to the north, in Thailand, such comments are not heard. Thailand allied itself to Japan during World War II in order to survive and to expand its territory.

But despite differences of perspective across Southeast Asia, the view of Japan increasingly looks toward the future, not the past.

However, it will take some time to tell how successful efforts to bolster ties will be.Many Southeast Asians believe Japan will only talk, not act.

Almost every Southeast Asian nation wants more Japanese financial assistance -- foreign investment, loans, and preferential tariff agreements. Mr. Suzuki announced support for rural developments programs in the five ASEAN member nations of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore.

The noncommunist Southeast Asian countries want assurances Japan will not "tilt" toward Vietnam with either economic or diplomatic support. They are concerned lest the lure of profits lead Japan to help Vietnam at a time when most Southeast Asian nations want to drain Vietnam economically and thus force it from Cambodia.

So many separate items for discussion existed that a scorecard of behind-the-scene results is difficult to obtain.

But some results are clear. Prime Minister Zusuki did announce increased aid for Indonesia. He also gave deference to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's protestations that importing Japanese technical expertise is just as necessary as receiving grants, loans, and investments.

In Thailand Mr. Suzuki clearly emphasized that his country would not pull out the rug from under Thai efforts to contain what it sees as Vietnamese expansionism in Cambodia. Vietnam responded on its official radio by calling the visit a Japanese, US, and Chinese plot.

The Prime Minister also announced Japan's backing for a United Nations General Assembly resolution for an international conference to set up a new government in Cambodia. Vietnam, eager to dominate Cambodia and prevent return of Chinese influence there, has refused so far attend such a conference. Just this week a Japanese envoy at the UN called for such a conferenc e.

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