Eight years after communist victories in Indochina the spotlight of US attention has moved away from Southeast Asia. For the US government and news media, this largely peaceful region is on the ''back burner'' - compared to areas such as the Middle East, Central America, and Western Europe.
Yet even though no more ''dominoes'' have ''fallen'' to communism since 1975, in many respects the area is as much a drill field for the world's political and economic superpowers as it has ever been. ''Outsiders'' like the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, and China still compete for political and economic influence.
Together with Southeast Asians themselves, they face decisions strongly affecting the region's 335 million people.
The reason is that Southeast Asia is a testing ground where the United States and the Soviet Union act out their global competition. Soviet naval patrols penetrate south to the Pacific from Vladivostok, sometimes receiving service and supplies at Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay - former US bases opened to them by Moscow's ally, Vietnam.
From Clark and Subic bases in the Philippines, the US Navy and Air Force shadow Soviet movements, as both the US and the Soviets vie for access to strategic passageways such as the Strait of Malacca. Both navies use such routes to deploy warships between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Amid Soviet objections , the US prods Japan to strengthen its defensive naval posture against the Soviets in the North Pacific, so US forces can concentrate farther south.
Meanwhile, China has signaled a kind of Southeast Asian ''Monroe Doctrine'' to prevent Soviet influence in Southeast Asia from spreading beyond Vietnam - described by some analysts as China's ''Asian Cuba.'' Peking sent the signal in 1979 when it attacked Vietnam, shortly after Vietnam invaded and occupied Kampuchea, then allied with China. That Chinese invasion announced to Southeast Asia and the world that Peking was strong enough to ''stand up'' against the possibility of a Soviet retaliatory attack.
This is the setting in which the United States must choose and reassess its policies.
The problem receiving the greatest political attention in the region is the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea (Cambodia). At issue is whether the US should continue backing China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by refusing trade and diplomatic relations with Vietnam, and refusing to recognize the Vietnam-backed Heng Samrin government in Kampuchea.
Supporters of the policy say changing it would undermine Washington's relations with China and with members of ASEAN - Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore. They add it would signal Hanoi that it can get away with using aggressive actions to solve its problems.
''Front-line'' Thailand is most directly involved. Its troops face Vietnamese forces across the Thai-Kampuchean border. Fighting between Vietnamese soldiers and guerrilla forces has sometimes spilled into Thailand. Vietnam has hinted it will retaliate against Thailand, if Thailand does not limit support for the guerrillas.
For now, countries like Thailand and Singapore support the coalition of Kampuchean anti-Vietnamese guerrillas led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. They conclude that continued pressure is needed to chop down the arrogance that Vietnam's leaders are thought to have developed after successfully fighting the French (1946-1954), the Americans (1963-1973), and then the Chinese (1979).
Some US and Asian diplomats and scholars criticize this approach, maintaining that ''bridges'' should be built to Vietnam. Their hope is that political and economic ties would eventually cut into Hanoi's dependence on the Soviet Union and reduce the temptation for Vietnam to grant more military facilities to Moscow. Some proponents of this view argue that changes are needed to protect Kampuchea against continual internal fighting and economic backwardness.
The more aid guerrillas receive from outside, the more Vietnam feels it necessary to maintain, or even to increase, troop strength in Kampuchea. They contend that US, Chinese, and ASEAN military or economic aid to anti-Vietnamese guerrillas inside Kampuchea, as well as Western support for continued UN recognition of the ousted Pol Pot government, gives Hanoi a propaganda victory both inside and outside Kampuchea. Thus Vietnam can deny it is a colonial power and proclaim it is protecting the Kampuchean people from a resumption of Pol Pot atrocities.
There is some concern among Southeast Asian leaders that the US might unilaterally change its Indochina policy, rather than coordinating strategy with ASEAN. This reflects a view that US policy sometimes shifts from one extreme to another. Some Southeast Asians see the US military engagement and later withdrawal from Vietnam as a troubling example of this American tendency.
Thus, doubts are sometimes expressed over the reliability of American commitments to ASEAN members. The US maintains it will provide weapons - and perhaps air support - if Vietnamese forces cross the Kampuchean border into Thailand. But there is often concern that Washington's preoccupation with other parts of the world might make it an unreliable ally. Some Southeast Asian leaders are also wary of the Reagan administration's policy of rearming Japan so it can help contain the growing Soviet Pacific navy.
Beyond Kampuchea, noncommunist Southeast Asian countries share concern about a broad range of third-world issues. One is the prospect of growing trade protectionism in the US and Western Europe. This could cut imports of Southeast Asian manufactured goods such as textiles and electronic products. Some nations, like Malaysia, maintain buyer nations have too much power to keep prices low. Thus Malaysia has proposed a joint price-setting agreement with Thailand and Indonesia to maintain the high export prices they see as necessary to finance imports of manufactured goods. Indonesia also has been vulnerable to reduced demand and lower prices for its oil.
Another issue is the Law of the Sea Treaty. Indonesia and Singapore, in particular, have objected to the Reagan administration's opposition to the treaty. The Indonesians claim the US view would bar them from jurisdiction of expanses of water connecting the country's many islands.
Malaysia and Indonesia, sometimes joined by the Philippines and Singapore, accuse Western media of distorting their coverage of third-world countries by spotlighting the negative and the sensational. Some Western journalists express concern that several Southeast Asian governments are seeking to bar foreign news coverage of their countries.
For the US there is also the human-rights question, especially in relation to the dictatorship of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos. Southeast Asian governments are happier with the Reagan policy of quietly playing down human rights than with that of former President Carter. But dissidents in the Philippines claim the Reagan policy of moving closer to Marcos could strengthen anti-Americanism there and ultimately threaten US base rights in the Philippines under any Marcos successor.