In Southeast Asia today the ''ugly American'' stereotype has given way to another exaggerated image - the ''absent American.'' The American trade, investment, and foreign aid presence, so preeminent before the US with drawal from Vietnam, is now seen as waning.
In its place is a budding, peaceful Japanese presence. A new Japanese-initiated Asian ''co-prosperity zone'' has emerged some 40 years after US marines defeated Tokyo's World War II bid to enforce economic and political domination over most of Asia.
Today Japan leads in outside aid, investment, exports, and joint-venture enterprises. Japanese trading companies have aggressively set up ship in many parts of Asia.
This development is an important aspect ofd the complex, changing US-Japan relationship. As Washington presses to open Japan's markets to US goods, US firms make only sporadic efforts to match Japan's profitmaking Southeast Asian operations.
Some observers feel that by failing to invest in and trade with newly industrialized countries (NICs) of Southeast Asia, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, the US neglects an opportunity to help compensate for its trade deficit with Japan.
Meanwhile a triangle of Japan, China, and other parts of Asia (including the NICs) may be forming. Harrison Brown of the East-West Center in Honolulu has pointed out that, unless American performance improves, the US could be frozen out of an emerging Pacific trade goup. These issues were discussed at a recent New York conference sponsored by the Asia Society and the Japan Society.
''If US-Japan trade imbalances are to be sustainable, then Japan's surplus within East Asia ought to be reduced, indeed reversed,'' Dr. Lawrence B. Krause, an American economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington, told the conference.
It is not so much that Asian markets outside Japan are excluding Americans, many agreed. Rather, US businesses too often lack commitment, on-the-scene staff , willingness to invest, and organizational flexibility. Lack of long-term cooperation between government and business in the US, something which is highly developed in Japan, has hindered the US corporate presence in Asia. US laws may restrict as bribery business practices that are often accepted in Asia and limit trust formation and technology export.
While the headlines focus on US-Japan trade friction and simmering Asian concern over implications of Japanese rearmament, Japan's economic leadership among the NICs and in Southeast Asia as a whole quietly advances. Japan provides a ready market for Southeast Aisan natural resources (and even some light manufacture), and NICs buy Japanese goods.
''A good deal of Japan's gaining share of the manufactured goods imported by the NICs of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore has come from a US loss,'' said Dr. James C. Abegglen, an American vice-president of the Boston Consulting Group in Tokyo. While the US share of manufactured exports to the NICs fell from 30 percent in 1970 to only 20 percent today, comparable Japanese exports rose from 2 percent to 10 percent, according to Dr. Abegglen.
''It is hard to find a second runner-up to Japan as far as trade with countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,'' or ASEAN (Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia), said Dr. Narongchai Akrasanee, managing director of the INdustrial Management Company in Bangkik. ''In all categories of aid, Japan is now No, 1, surpassing the United States, Holland, and the United Kingdom,'' he added.
He cited this tactic as part of Japan's success, establishing overseas offices for trading companies, skillful tailoring of new products to changing consumer demand, and participating in local projects through investment in joint-venture enterprises.
Japan's government has often linked foreign aid to private business proposals to make Japanese offers more attractive. Japan's flexibility and shrewdness have thus won out in a promising, outward-looking, trade-oriented, import-hungry, resource-rich market of some 160 million people. The region's relatively high per capita income and youthful population - 40 percent under 15 - have made Southeast Asia a promising market.
Like the US, ASEAN nations have all complained of problems in penetrating the Japanese market, Dr. Narongchai noted - even though the region as a whole has a yearly trade surplus with Japan of some $6 billion. This is because Malaysia and Indonesia sell Japan enough oil and liquefied natural gas to create an overall regional trade surplus - even though Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines, when taken individually, all have deficits with Tokyo.
He said this lively business has increasingly made governments, business, and consumers in various parts of Asia eager to deal with Japan, overriding the suspicions of Japan sometimes voiced by intellectuals and others.
''Something within us has diminished in the last three decades as the investors of the world,'' said American businessman Thomas M. Hague, are director for Asia of the Borg-Warner corporation. ''But I don't see the story as reaching the point necessary to make the decisionns necessary if we are to maintain our position in Asia . . . It is only in defense materiel and arms sales that the Americans are making new, profitable penetrations in Southeast Asia.''