Big powers maneuver on Asian Chessboard; Soviets try to counter US-Korean thaw?

Moscow sees the apparent thaw in South Korean-US relations as its latest installment of bad news from Asia -- and seems increasingly determined to balance the scales.

Among the apparent elements in this drive:

* To hang tough on Afghanistan, encouraging Pakistan or anyone else to seek a negotiated settlement of the crisis, but only if the Soviets' December 1979 intervention gains at least tacit acceptance in the process.

* To strengthen ties with allies like Vietnam and (Vietnamese-controlled) Cambodia, while aggressively wooing nominally nonaligned India closer to home.

* To play up Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev's public call for an Indian Ocean peace plan even though it has already been rejected as subterfuge by Washington; and similar initiative from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

* To escalate propaganda assaults on the perceived local villains furthering US "military designs" on the region. High on this list the Soviets put China, japan, and Pakistan -- not to mention South korea.

The Soviet press did far more than just mention the South Koreans as their President began talks in the US Feb. 2. The Communist Party newspaper Pravda shrugged off recent signs of liberalization by the Korean regime -- including the decision not to execute a once-prominent opposition leader, but simply to keep him in jail -- as mere "cosmetic measures."

"All this," Pravda wrote to Korean President Chun Doo Hwan's government, "is designed to give the regime a more respectable look so that the US can increase economic and military aid to it."

But the Soviets -- who not too many years ago could sit back and watch Washington sink in the mire of Indochinese war -- have far more than South Korea to be concerned about in the Asia of the 1980s. Pravda, in its own way, helps catalog the concerns.

The noncommunist Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) groups five countries that seem to be doing fine, thank you, without meddling from Moscow. (Phooey, grumbled Pravda in an analysis overleaf from its denunciation of South Korea . . . . Asian prosperity is a "myth," a mere "restructuring of neocolonialism" including the "active armament" of its members by outside "imperialism.")

Japan, until a few years ago, seemed open to workable friendship with the Soviets if they would just hand back several formerly Japanese islands occupied after World War II.

But the Soviets said no and the Japanese instead signed a friendship pact with Peking. As if that were not bad enough, fumes Pravda over moves toward incremental Japanese rearmament, "The ruling classes of the country are pursuing a course of all-out cooperation with the dangerous world strategy of the Pentagon."

Then there is China. For a brief spell after the passing of former Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the Soviets seemed to entertain some hopes that Sino-Soviet enmity could be eased. It wasn't. Pravda diverted from its fiery expose on ASEAN to declare:

"Far-reaching expansionist aims to the region are also pursued by China . . . openly opposing cooperation between the countries of ASEAN and Indochinese countries on the road to socialism."

But the Soviets, traditionally fearful of "encirclement," clearly see their East Asian woes as part of a greater whole including alleged Western military designs around Afghanistan or Indian Ocean and oil-rich Persian Gulf.

In East Asia, Soviet officials and news media have been playing up Soviet ties with its few reliable allies, chief among them Vietnam.

Closer to home, the Soviets have endorsed continued efforts by Pakistan to reduce the international outcry over Afghanistan. But Soviet official statements have stressed that any such exit must in effect endorse the Soviet-installed regime and the Soviet's invasion.

At the same time, the Soviets have almost ostentatiously wooed India -- formally nonaligned, practically leaning toward Moscow, and apparently willing to provide at least a measure of international cover for the Soviets' military presence in Afghanistan.

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