Think of Asia, and you think of the trouble spots: Afghanistan, Kampuchea, and the trade conflict with Japan. But the troubles tend to obscure the bright spots. It is only when a group of diplomats or other experts meet and try to look at the broader picture that one realizes that since the fall of Kampuchea and Vietnam eight years ago, the West has done relatively well in Asia.
Moving from Thailand eastward, several of the noncommunist nations of the region have prospered, and much more so than many other nations of the world. After some delay, the worldwide economic recession has struck the region. But East Asia, in particular, has been better able to absorb the shock than have most other regions of the world.
This was the conclusion of 15 American ambassadors who gathered in Hong Kong Feb. 9 to meet with Secretary of State George Shultz. Paul Wolfowitz, the new assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the ambassadors he was delighted to have the job he had because it meant dealing with a healthy, thriving part of the world. He added, however, that this left no room for complacency.
Military experts attending the Hong Kong meeting warned that the Soviet Union continued its rapid buildup of naval forces in East Asia and was now using air and naval bases in Vietnam on a permanent basis. Indeed, according to an ambassador who attended the meeting, this is the region of the world where the Soviet military presence has expanded most rapidly in recent years.
The United States, of course, is not standing still. It is expanding and strengthening its Navy, and roughly half of that expansion will go into the Pacific. It has bolstered its tactical air forces in South Korea with new supplies. The renovated and modernized battleship New Jersey is to join the 7th Fleet in the Pacific. In addition to all this, the US is counting on its key ally in the region, Japan, to do more to defend itself.
The US ambassador to Japan, Mike Mansfield, says that in the last three years the Soviet Pacific fleet has become ''the biggest, the best, and the fastest-growing of the four Soviet fleets.
''The Soviet Union is concentrating quite heavily on the Far East,'' said Mansfield in an interview.
According to Mansfield, the Soviets have put about 25 percent of their armies and 26 percent of their air force into Asia. Their ships and submarines outnumber those of the United States in the region, the ambassador said, but he asserted that the American naval forces confronting the Soviets were ''first rate.''
Because the US had to shift some of its 7th Fleet ships to the west Indian Ocean during crises in Iran and Afghanistan, the US would like for Japan to do more to defend its own islands, Mansfield said.
The ambassador said that US-Japan discussions at a high military level were expected to start in Japan within the next few months, probably in March, in order to establish plans and procedures for Japanese naval patrolling up to 1, 000 nautical miles south and southeast of Tokyo.
What has amazed Mansfield and some other ambassadors is that the Soviet Union has not been able to match its military buildup in Asia with an increase in political and diplomatic sophistication. When Yuri Andropov took power in Moscow , some observers expected the Soviets to move toward resolving the conflict over the Soviet occupation of four of Japan's northern islands and getting Japanese cooperation in the development of Siberia. But all the Soviets have managed to do so far is to threaten the Japanese with nuclear holocaust if they continue their defense buildup.
''The Soviets are so heavy-handed, they make us look good by comparison,'' said Ambassador Mansfield. ''They could do a lot of things to bring about a better relationship with Japan, primarily through the return of the northern territories to Japan.''
Another diplomat attending the Hong Kong meeting of ambassadors went farther than Mansfield. The diplomat, who requested anonymity, said: ''The biggest advantage we have in this part of the world is the incompetence of the Russians. As a result of their incompetence, our incompetence is less visible.''
Harold Hinton, an expert on Sino-Soviet affairs at the George Washington University, explains, however, that the Soviets consider two of the Japanese islands they occupy as essential to their security. The Soviets, Professor Hinton says, want to use the islands as a buffer and as advanced listening posts. In addition, the Soviets apparently fear that making any concession on the issue of the islands would simply whet the appetite of the Chinese and other claimants to territory seized by the Soviets and by the czars.
The Soviets do appear to have shown greater sophistication recently in their dealings with China. Most experts, including Hinton, say the Soviets and Chinese will continue to make limited progress in opening up trade and cultural relations. Already there is more trade and less tension between the two nations. But the experts do not expect to see any return to Sino-Soviet strategic cooperation and they do not anticipate any major drawdown of Soviet troops stationed along the Chinese border.
Sino-Soviet detente did not seem to be a major preoccupation of the American ambassadors who gathered in Hong Kong. For one thing, according to an aide to Secretary of State Shultz, the Chinese assured Shultz during the secretary's recent visit to Peking that they did not lump the Soviets and Americans into the same category as adversaries.
Although China and the United States disagree over a number of international issues, their interests seem to run in parallel in a number of places that count in Asia. Both China and the United States want, for example, to keep pressure on the Vietnamese-supported Heng Samrin regime in Kampuchea. Both support Pakistan and want to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
What worried some of the American ambassadors gathered in Hong Kong more than any Soviet or Chinese activities were some other trends in the region: moves toward protectionism, for example. One State Department official attending the meeting said he feared that unless Japan opened up its markets more to the US, every Democratic candidate for president in the 1984 election would be ''running against Japan.''
Another worry for some of the diplomats was the Philippines, where a combination of economic woes, an uncertain succession to President Ferdinand Marcos, and a growing communist insurgency could prove to be ''destabilizing.'' But even here, the problems are viewed as containable, if not resolvable. The opposition to Marcos continues to be fragmented.
Yet another worry that hardly ever makes headlines in the United States is Australia, according to one official. He said that some of the pacifist sentiments that are so evident in Western Europe are equally strong in Australia. Should the Labor Party come to power in Australia, it might eventually restrict the movements of the American Navy in and out of that nation's ports, the official said.