Noncommunist Southeast Asian governments are looking with guarded optimism at signs that the Reagan administration's commitment to the region is increasing. But so far there is a wait-and-see attitude to determine if symbols are followed by action.
The Reagan team is moving rapidly to signal the seriousness of its commitment to help defend the area against what are widely seen as the expansionist plans of Soviet-backed Vietnam. Many noncommunist Southeast Asian leaders had come to doubt the support of the Carter administration.
Among the signals so far:
1. A special meeting between Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and a delegation of ambassadors from ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations). The secretary of state told the delegation which was led by Thai Ambassador Prok Amaranand, that Southeast Asia was critical to world peace and that there would be no wavering of the American commitment. "The meeting was a symbolic step, but it was extremely important," noted one analyst here.
2. The apparent decision of the Reagan administration to continue to vote for recognition of the ousted Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia in the UN General Assembly, which reconvenes in September. Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr. Mochtar Kusumatmaja said in bangkok last week the American position had been disclosed to him during a meeting with Secretary Haig.
The Carter administration previously supported ASEAN's continued recognition of the Khmer Rouge rather than the Vietnam-backed Heng Samrin govrnment in Phnom Penh. But before Carter's November defeat, officials in his administration said they would reconsider their UN position for next year.
If Dr. Mochtar's account is correct, the US has moved in still another symbolic way to buttress its solidarity with ASEAN (whose member nations are Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia).
3. A step-up of easy-term loans for arms sales to Thailand of 62.5 percent for next year. If the US Congress meets the request, these credits would rise from $50 million to $80 milrequest, these credits would rise from $50 million to in international military education and training funds, more than double the amount this year. Thailand seeks this aid to build its defenses against 200,000 Vietnamese occupying neighboring Cambodia.
Despite this, doubt remains among ASEAN leaders whether the Reagan administration means what it says.
"We still do not know if America is committed here. Memories of Vietnam may still hold it back. When it gets down to it, the new administration may be out to defend only America," said one skeptical ASEAN minister.
One tricky question is whether the United States will be willing to join China in directly providing aid to Cambodian guerrilla groups fighting the Heng Samrin forces.
Cambodia's former leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, has said he will ask the United States for help. Another resistance leader, former Prime Minister Son Sann, has said his group, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front, will also ask the United States for help.
But so far the question has stayed academic, partly because anti-Vietnam resistance groups have remained splintered. They appear to have made no formal specific public request for US military aid, although a Son Sann lieutenant, Dien DEl, was in washington last week. The administration has not taken a public position, although Dien Del said it had offered political aid.
Thus the US has not publicly matched in Cambodia its offer to supply arms to guerrillas fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Meanwhile on-gain, off-again talks continue between anti-Vietnamese Cambodian resistance leaders.
Last week's talks between Prince Sihanouk and communist Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Sampan broke off. The Prince said the Khmer Rouge had rejected his demand that all Khmer factions be disarmed and subjected to international controls after defeating Vietnam. Sihanouk also said Khieu Sampan had agreed in the talks, held in Pyongyang, North Korea, to recognize a separate Sihanoukist force and to resume talks in Peking at the end of April. Despite all the difficulties , Khieu Sampan later proclaimed a united front would be possible by year's end.
Meanwhile, bickering continued between the Prince and Son Sann, the other major noncommunist resistance leader.