The rapidly changing face of Asia; Cracks in communist Asia's wall

By , The writer sums up his impressions after five years in Southeast Asia before returning to the United States.

In China there are hawkers and privately run restaurants where once there were militant left-wing slogans. And in Peking American diplomats do "business as usual" with a government they once ostracized as a threat to world peace.

In Southeast Asia Soviet naval vessels dock in vietnam at the former US bases of Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay -- projecting their power around the Asian continent.

In Cambodia and Laos there is an impoverished, uneasy peace enforced by Vietnam's occupying troops. Southeast Asia's major insurgency no longer pits communists against capitalists. Intead, it is the communist Khmer Rouge battling the Vietnam-dominated communist government of Cambodia.

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In Asia as a whole, China is no longer an inward-looking "paper tiger." Having successfully defied the Soviet Union by invading Moscow's protege as a major regional power. Marxist China now protects Thailand's monarchy an Buddhism against Marxist Vietnam.

Asia today is another world from the scene encountered by this correspondent when he first arrived.

China was still in chains left over from the ultraleft Cultural Revolution.

For Americans, Taiwan is still "China."

The Soviet Navy was still bottled up in Vladivostok.

Vietnam was still defensively warding off bloody attacks ordered by the communist Khmer Rouge rulers of Cambodia.

Southeast Asian nations were still disunited, not yet effectively cemented by the noncommunist grouping known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Above all, the aging Mao Tse-Tung, father of the Chinese communist revolution , still sat uneasily on his throne.

Then it all began. With the death of Mao in the fall of 1976, a new round of purges racked China. Mao's "empress," Jiang Qing, and others of the leftist "gang of four" were hauled off to prison. The "pragmatic survivor," thrice-purged Deng Xiaoping, reemerged as the man who would reshape China's politics, economics, and relations with the outside world. To ward off the Soviet Union and gain technology for modernization, Deng edged closer and closer to the Western world -- and that meant, of course, the United States.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries were wondering nervously if the withdrawal of American power after the 1975 defeat in Vietnam would usher in the "falling of the dominces" to communist power, as some had predicted.

On the other side of the world the US seemed paralyzed, guilt-ridden by Vietnam. US presidents seemed hamstrung by the "anti-imperial" reaction to Watergate. Jimmy Carter seemed more interested in lecturing his Asian ally (South Korea) on human rights than in building up its defenses against what some expected to be an even more aggressive "communist world."

Then came the unexpected. Already split by the Chinese-Russian dispute, the "communist world" crumbled even further. An open border war between Cambodia, ruled by the communist Khmer Rouge, and communist Vietnam showed just how difficult it would be for Vietnam to rule all of Indochina -- let alone dominate all of Southeast Asia.

Noncommunist Southeast Asia breathed a sigh of relief that the communists were having troubles among themselves. Vietnam's war-racked economy deteriorated further.

But for China it was another matter. The impatient, energetic, and aggressive Deng Xiaoping could not tolerate an ever more strongly Soviet-aligned Vietnam moving to dominate all of Indochina.

So Deng increased China's support for Cambodia's Khmer Rouge rulers, despite their bloody reputation, as Vietnam's stubborn and aging leadership move closer to the Soviet Union.

Vietnam retaliated by persecuting its ethnic Chinese minority, who eventually fled by the thousands in boats: this persecution brought an emotional reaction in China, where Vietnam was seen as an outlaw, ungrateful for years of Chinese aid.

Vietnam, it seemed, was not behaving as a proper "tributary" state should.

All this set the stage for the event that was to transform world politics: normalization between the US and China.

Throughout 1978 secret soundings continued. As Vietnam moved closer to the Soviets and hinted at escalating war with Cambodia, Deng speeded the process of normalization with Washington. The result was establishment of diplomatic relations in January 1979.

But nothing could deter Vietnam. In early 1979 its armies rolled across Cambodia, leaving China with "no choice" but to punish its southern neighbor with a limited invasion across their common border.

Meanwhile, two other developments shook Asia and the world beyond.

One was the emergence of Japan as a giant exporter of automobiles and electronics Japanese products flooded North America, Southeast Asia, and Australia.The influx produced growing pressures for protectionism and a new challenge for local firms to match their newly arriving Japanese competitor.

The second was Vietnam's export of hundreds of thousands of refugees, many by boat. The refugees burdened the Southeast Asian countries where they first arrived. Ultimately they challenged international agencies to provide relief and permanent homes in North America, australia, and Western Europe. The stream of Vietnamese migrants arriving in such areas transformed these countries' ethnic composition, competed with their labor and, among other things, meant a vast jump in the number of Asian restaurants.

China's normalization with America, Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, and China's strike into Vietnam ushered in a new period of history with reverberations across Asia, and beyond.

With America in the ring, the rush to compete for lucrative trade and modernization deals with China escalated. Both Japan and Western Europe took note.

With the possibility that the America-China tie would grow, the Soviet Union had to be at least a little nervous. Anything that built up China militarily or economically could only increase Moscow's concern over being surrounded by armies in both Europe and Asia. Just how far the US would play the "China card" was and is the question.

China's new tie with the US raised hopes that Peking might restrain North Korea in its military confrontations with South Korea.

The situation is Southeast Asia was also changed, with mixed results.

On one hand it was clear that China and Vietnam were engaged in a protracted struggle with no end in sight. This, some note, has tied them both down and neutralized them, thus helping protect the rest of Southeast Asia from either a Chinese or Vietnamese threat.

Indeed, the Buddhist monarchy of Thailand, once concerned over a Chinese-oriented communist insurgency, now looks actively to China for protection against Vietnam. The Thais hope that if Vietnam attacks Thailand from Cambodia, China will retaliate against Vietnam's northern border. It is hoped this possibility will deter Vietnam.

But the fall of Khmer Rouge-ruled Cambodia also means noncommunist Southeast Asia has lost a buffer against Vietnam. It has also fueled fears of Vietnamese expansionism an reinforced caution about accommodation with Vietnam.

this could has had a silver lining, though, for Southeast Asia. It has spurred a new sense of unity and cooperation in the noncommunist Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This long relatively dormant association of Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines has taken on new life both for economic and political consulatations. "Coopearation is now a respectable word," notes one Western diplomat, who says the results show themselves more in intangilble results of meetings and consultations than in specific projects.

All of this adds up to a radically altered set of relationships among Asian nation's big and small since the Vietnam war ended in 1975.

Points of potential conflict persist with the unending unsurgencies against Vietnamese rule in Cambodia, the possibility of another China-Vietnam war, and the expanding Soviet naval presence. A possibility (but not necessarily a probability) is that civil war in Cambodia could draw in Thailand and indirectly the Soviet Union and US.

But there is also a strong possibility that a stage of relative regional stability -- or stalemate -- has been reached. If so, this calm could be an umbrella under which many of the region's countries can develop economically and socially. However, an umbrella is not by itself enough, unless each country in the region can develop and maintain a stable, unified, and effective leadership.

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