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Prospects for change at the top fascinate Asia-watchers

By Frederic A. MoritzStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 1983

''Who will rule next?'' The question of succession has become an ever-present concern of diplomats, journalists, businessmen, the military, and intelligence officers involved with Asia.

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Behind it is the widespread but sometimes unwarranted assumption that change at the top may heavily influence an Asian country's economic and political relations with outside governments and corporations.

This is a common problem for the foreign business and diplomatic community in almost any country. But it's worse in Asia, because the region's political and cultural traditions are so unfamiliar to the West.

Political maneuverings in Asia, which lacks the West's democratic tradition, sometimes strike outsiders as ''unpredictable or ''inscrutable.'' In China, Vietnam, the two Koreas, Taiwan, and Singapore, personality cults have elevated leaders into nearly indispensable father figures. This raises concern that no successor could fill their shoes without instability or major economic and foreign policy changes.

Some Asians themselves are perplexed by the succession question. Still, they can be amused by the great emphasis placed on the issue by foreign observers. Asians sometimes point out that their countries are no more unpredictable than other nations. They point out that many Asian leaders stay in power far longer than their Western counterparts.

Asia's ''West-watchers'' are sometimes puzzled at what they see as erratic, unpredictalbe, extreme swings in Western policies that sometimes result when an election or parliamentary maneuvering ousts an incumbent. In Asia, where security and economic vitality may be heavily influenced by just who wields power in Washington, the United States succession question may seem just as important as any issue in Asia itself.

US corporations pay as much as $2,500 a year for ''political risk'' reports from consultants who combine scholarly social science diagrams and research with journalistic brevity. Governments such as that of the US want to know just how likely it is that the weapons assistance and other aid granted will fall into the hands of a government that later turns hostile. The US, for example, wants to know just how secure its base facilities, such as the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, are.

In the wake of communist victories in China and Indochina there has also been a concern over any possibility that other countries would adopt communist or socialist systems unresponsive to Western corporations. China's open-door policy of cooperation with foreign companies under Deng Xiaoping has raised the question of whether those doors are likely to remain open after Mr. Deng's passing.

Besides major nationalizations and foreign policy realignments, there are subtler issues, too. What guidelines will develop for dealing with foreigners, either under a strong new leader, or after a period of anarchic infighting? Will tax and price policies, for example, be changed to win popular political support for military or civilian figures contending for power? With a power struggle in progress, will higher- and lower-level officials be reluctant to risk retaliation by making decisions and negotiating with foreigners? Will a new military ruler try to rally nationalistic support by clamping down on foreign commercial activities? Or will a democratically elected government of civilians be so divided into factions and parties that its economic policies will change unpredictably?

Changing answers to these questions may influence foreign companies to concentrate on short-term, medium-term, or long-term investment. A foreign government concluding that a current leader is on the way out may want to put out feelers to a possible successor.

The succession question in part reflects the interaction of regional traditions with Western influence. Much of the region only recently emerged from the post-nationalistic struggle that threw off Western and Japanese rule.

In much of pre-colonial Asia, there was some idea that a ruler should serve, if not represent, the interests of his people. But leaders most often gained their power from family lines, conquests, or educational or economic position. In many countries ideas of benevolent paternalism supported authoriatarian tendencies both in family and government.

European colonialism governed most of East Asia, with the exception of Japan, Thailand, and, in name at least, China. Colonies frequently were not unified nations, but collections of different races, tribes, and religious groups that might have remained separate except for colonial rule.

This meant that a strong leader was sometimes needed to prevent inharmony, rebellion, or civil war after independence. ''Keeping the lid on'' with authoritarian rule could be justified as necessary to preserve peace and harmony - not simply to maintain the leader's personal power.