ASEAN at 20

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THIS week's meeting of the top leaders of Southeast Asia in Manila may have lacked the intense media glare of last week's Reagan-Gorbachev summit. But in many respects, it was just as important - underscoring the growing economic and political influence of Asia in global affairs, as well as the diminished role of the United States in that region. The gathering was the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - the first in a decade, and only the third in the two-decade-long history of the organization. ASEAN was formed back in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam war, as a mini-NATO for those nations of Southeast Asia having close commercial or defense ties with the United States. The members are Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, and the Philippines.

No inconsequential grouping this. Together the six countries embrace more than 280 million people. Their economies have been among the fastest-growing in the world in recent years. One, Brunei, is a major oil exporter. They span the religious spectrum - Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, and others. They are nations to be taken seriously.

How the world - and certainly Asia - have changed since 1967! Back then, Vietnam, together with domestic threats from communist-backed dissident groups, dominated the region's attention. Exports were so-so but growing. Peking and Moscow were the region's ``enemies.'' The US was the most important non-regional player in southern Asia.

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Today Japan dominates the region, certainly commercially. The Soviets share military power in Asia, because of their defense links with Vietnam. And Peking has improved its ties throughout the region.

It is not surprising, then, that economics captured much of the attention at Manila. Japan says it will spend some $2 billion in aid for the region. That makes sense, given Japan's proximity - and wealth.

The ASEAN nations are correct to challenge protectionist laws in the US and elsewhere, as well as to oppose trade barriers within their region.

Working toward a nuclear-free zone, as agreed upon, is more difficult; it will likely require long-range study. However commendable the goal of a nonnuclear zone, it would be too bad if antinuclear laws were to induce the US to pull back from Southeast Asia, leaving only the Soviets.

How would that help the ASEAN nations in their efforts to bring about a pullback of Soviet-backed Vietnamese forces from Cambodia?

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