An increasingly assertive Japan is searching for a more political role in Southeast Asia. But it is hampered by ambivalent feelings in the region toward its overwhelming economic dominance.
The United States, meanwhile, having recovered from the shock of the Vietnam debacle, is redefining its security interests in a region rich in natural resources, undergoing dynamic economic growth, and challenged by growing numbers of Soviet submarines, surface ships, and combat planes operating out of Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay.
These were some of the views expressed by participants in a recent conference in this mountain resort under the majestic shadow of Mt. Fuji. The conferees discussed the triangular relationship between Japan, the United States, and the six-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the eve of ASEAN's annual ministerial conference (held this year in Jakarta), in which US Secretary of State George Shultz and Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe are participating.
(ASEAN ministers meet first with each other, July 9 and 10, then with invited guests on July 12. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand are the six ASEAN members.)
In the past 10 years, Japan has improved its image in Southeast Asia. But as participants in the Hakone conference pointed out, ASEAN feelings toward their powerful northern neighbor have changed from negativism to a kind of ambivalence. Ambivalence is better than negativism, but there remains a considerable distance to be traveled before relations can be called comfortable and warm.
Economically, the ASEAN countries are one of the world's most dynamic regions , with an annual growth rate of 6 to 7 percent. ASEAN's population of 270 million is comparable to that of the European Community or of the US. Its gross national product last year was $200 billion.
Militarily, the ASEAN countries are weak and look mainly to the US for protection against threats from the guerrilla war in Kampuchea (Cambodia) and the increasing Soviet support for Vietnamese forces occupying Kampuchea.
China, intent on modernizing its economy, has been cultivating good relations with ASEAN. But participants in the Hakone conference from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore pointed out that ASEAN remains wary of China. They remember that in the past China had supported Communist-led resistance groups in their countries, based on the large Chinese communities there. They fear Peking's growing economic strength.
The ASEAN countries see eye to eye with Tokyo and Washington on supporting political and economic stability in China. But they do not want Tokyo's burgeoning economic aid to China to overtake its aid to their own countries, nor do they favor American military assistance to Peking. Shultz and Abe will have to reassure them that American and Japanese ties with Peking will not be at the expense of relationships with the ASEAN countries.
These countries are also ambivalent about US pressure on Japan to rearm. They still remember Japan's occupation of Southeast Asia during World War II.
Participants in the Hakone conference said ASEAN would tolerate Japanese rearmament only to the extent that it frees American ships and planes to operate in greater strength in Southeast Asia. ASEAN is extremely uncomfortable with any implication that Washington may be asking Japan to take up part of its defense burden in East Asia as a whole, or to act as a surrogate for the US in the region.