Southeast Asia tiptoes toward normal relations with Peking

The last diplomatic roadblock preventing full relations between china and noncommunist Southeast Asia may be on the point of deasppearing. Already Vietnam. China's rival in the region, shows signs of nervousness.

Indonesia has begun a massive short- term naturalization program that could affect some 820,000 Chinese with Peking passports and 80,000 holding Taiwan documents. The program will end Aug. 17.

As a result of a simplified government procedure, separate noncitizen status will be conferred on this special group who constitute about one-fourth fo the 4 million Chinese overseas.

Indonesia has been cautious about establishing full relations with China. It has continually suspected that China had a hand in an abortive 1965 procommunist coup and there remains a lingering fear in Indonesia that China might use some of these non-Indonesian citizens as a "fifth column."

If the naturalization program overcomes this problem, Indonesia could move on to reinstate in Peking the post of ambassador it withdrew after the 1965 coup attempt.

But apparently to quash speculation that normalization might take place shortly after Aug. 17, at least one Indonesian official has told reporters the change will not take place in the near future. However, the problem in interpreting such statements is that different Indonesian officials give opposite viewpoints, and it is difficult to know which represent official policy.

In recent months Indonesian officials have hinted Indonesia may soon normalize relations with China, although public statements on this issue sometimes have been contradictory.

Once Indonesia moves, Singapore is expected to follow suit quickly. In the past, Singapore officials have been quoted as saying they will not normalize relations with China until all other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have done so. The others -- Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines -- already have relations with China.

"It is just a question of time now," says one ASEAN diplomat.

So far, China's representation in Singapore is limited to an office of the Bank of China. But the importance of the relationship is indicated by the high rank of the office head, who is a deputy general manager for the Bank of China.

Also Singapore's strongly anti-Vietnam posture within ASEAN brings it closer to China, despite the lack of formal relations. One analyst here sees evidence of closer relations in the invitation by Singapore Health Minister Toh Chin Chye for his Chinese counterpart, Qian Xinzhong, to visit Singapore later this year.

One sign that Vietnam may be concerned about Indonesia's changing position came in Hanoi's indication late last month that it is willing to negotiate an ocean boundery dispute with Indonesia.

According to Indonesia's Antara News Agency. Indonesia's Foreign Minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja will send a delegation to Hanoi to discuss Vietnam's claim to islands near the Natuna group in the South China Sea. The delegation was expected to leave this month or in early May.

Vietnam's apparent willingness to avoid antagonizing Indonesia by agreeing to talk may well reflect a desire to keep Indonesia from moving too close to China.

But it remains to be seen if Vietnam will make any concessions toward Indonesia to keep it from veering toward China.

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