In Asia, Shultz faces rising tide of interest in nuclear-free zones

The threat of more pro-West countries pursuing nuclear-free zones hangs over the meeting of Southeast Asian nations and their Western partners this week. United States Secretary of State George Shultz arrives in Manila Tuesday to find:

New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange a likely focus of attention. His nation plans to legislate by August an end to port calls of nuclear-equipped American military ships, despite a security treaty with the US.

A rising tide in the Philippines to expel US military bases and to declare the nation nuclear free.

Interest among some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to consider a regional nuclear-free zone inspired by similar steps among South Pacific countries and by New Zealand.

Advocates of nuclear-free zones contend that they would help prevent nuclear accidents and protect a nation from being nuclear targets.

Although US officials say that such zones could reduce the US military presence in the Pacific, they add that they can contain any move toward nuclear-free zones in the region. But one Western diplomat says: ``The New Zealand [trend] is dangerous. It could spread.''

Talks between Mr. Shultz and Mr. Lange are possible during the three-day meeting of Western developed nations (New Zealand, the US, Australia, Japan, Canada, and members of the European Community) and ASEAN (Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines). But Shultz-Lange talks have not yet been confirmed.

The US plans to withdraw its defense treaty commitments with New Zealand if, as expected, that nation passes the law preventing either nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships from entering the nation's waters. US officials are being tough on Lange. Last year, he refused permission for an American ship to dock after the US followed its standard policy of neither confirming nor denying that nuclear weapons were on board.

Washington wants to prevent other nations with US military facilities, such as Spain or Greece, from taking similar action. ``Lange is driving himself into a corner,'' one Western diplomat warns.

Still, the New Zealand premier is not alone. The 13-nation South Pacific Forum has put forth a protocol supported by most of its members which seeks to make the region nuclear-free. But the pact leaves each island nation the option to deny access to nuclear-equipped ships, something Washington can live with -- at the moment. Notably, after leaving Manila, Shultz will visit the Pacific island of Palau, a US territory that voted for semi-independence last year while also granting the US military rights.

ASEAN leaders are watching the South Pacific Forum with interest. While Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia and trade with the West dominate their formal meetings, some delegates wonder aloud about the uses of pursuing a nuclear-free zone. For instance, Indonesian officials speculate that such a move might help the bloc in its current stalemate with Hanoi, which may show interest in ousting the Soviet military from Cam Ranh Bay if Vietnam's neighbors also keep the big powers, including China, out of the region.

The Philippines, however, is debating a nuclear-free zone as a result of a renewed nationalism following the February toppling of President Ferdinand Marcos. Also, protests have grown against the still-idle $2.1 billion Bataan nuclear power plant.

Mr. Shultz arrives in Manila almost at the peak of a debate within the Constitutional Commission over the future of the US military bases here -- Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base. Leftist groups are seeking to collect 1 million signatures by July 4 requesting a constitutional provision against any foreign bases after the current US-Philippines base treaty expires in 1991. The same tactic was used to convince Corazon Aquino to run for president last year.

But the Aquino-appointed delegates to the commission do not appear to be leaning toward all-out rejection of US bases. The President herself says she is leaving her options open for after 1991. Rather, discussion has focused on a possible amendment committing the nation to pursue nuclear-free status, giving Aquino leverage to negotiate with the Americans but not ruling out a continued American military presence. Also, such an amendment is thought to help the debt-ridden Philippines to gain leverage in getting more money from the US when talks on the bases treaty open in 1988.

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