From rice paddies to microchips. This is the revolution brought about by economic development in Southeast Asia. A few years ago, an American consumer might have examined his Japanese watch, bought a shirt made in South Korea, and whiled away hours with a computer game manufactured in Hong Kong. Now, Southeast Asia is looming larger as a source of wearing apparel - your first shirt made in Malaysia will put you in touch with ASEAN - business machines, and even minicomputers, as well as the microchips that go into them.
The free nations of Southeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have a total population of more than 280 million, yearly gross national product of nearly $214 billion, and two-way trade with the US totaling more than $23 billion a year. US investment in the region, which includes Brunei , Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines, exceeds $10 billion a year. Some estimates of total combined oil and non-oil US investment reach $30 billion.
These free-market-oriented economies grew at more than 7 percent on the average between 1971 and 1983. Their economic record has been paralleled for the most part by a pattern of political stability and moderation unmatched in the third world - in a region that had been characterized for decades by turbulence and the spreading threat of communist insurrection.
This success story, largely unheralded, is the background to last week's visit by Secretary of State George Shultz to Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. In Jakarta, Secretary Shultz took part in the sixth annual dialogue among the six ASEAN foreign ministers and their counterparts from the United States, Japan , Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the European Community.
ASEAN's ''dialogue'' with the Western industrial democracies is no accident. The Southeast Asian countries have chosen their friends carefully. The US and leading democracies are not only ASEAN's free-enterprise kinfolk; they are also ASEAN's main markets, for both natural commodities such as rubber, tin, and timber and an increasingly wide variety of manufactured goods.
The ASEAN region is an important and growing trading partner of the US - our fifth largest. In 1984, it is estimated, more than 30 percent of ASEAN's total exports will go to the US. Our consumption of goods from ASEAN nearly doubled between 1979 and 1983. ASEAN's economic growth has been good for the US. American exports to ASEAN in 1981-83 held steady, while our exports to Latin America, burdened by global recession and massive debt, declined sharply.
Why is ASEAN doing so well when the news from other developing areas is so bad? Free-market trade policies, generally skillful and conservative economic management, high priority for education and training, and a keen eye on policies that promote overall economic growth and, with it, social and political stability.
The road to economic success and, for the most part, stability of the ASEAN nations has taken varied routes, depending upon their colonial pasts and social systems.
ASEAN has done more to promote prosperity and stability than any organization of developing nations. The bickering among these neighbors, characteristic of the 1950s and early '60s, has been put aside in favor of ''ASEAN first'' cooperation. Economically, ASEAN is by no means a common market, but there have been important steps toward complementarity by reductions in intraregional tariffs, joint ASEAN-government investment in industrial projects such as fertilizer plants, and pushing private-sector investment projects in which entrepreneurs from all ASEAN nations can take part. The US business community, with Washington's backing, is helping to advance private entrepreneurship through a new technology exchange center which will create ''connecting links'' between US and ASEAN businessmen.
American policy toward ASEAN through five administrations has been a model of low-key cooperation. Created at a time of great upheaval in Southeast Asia, ASEAN has been ever conscious not only of its members' mutual interests in promoting regional stability, but also of the need to respect what makes them different from one another.
The US too has been respectful of those differences. We have followed a diversified course in relations with the region that ranges from military cooperation with the Philippines and Thailand to strong support for the economic development of assertively nonaligned Indonesia. Our constructive relationship with ASEAN contrasts sharply with that of the Soviet Union, which has regarded this collection of free, vigorously independent-minded nations with suspicion and even derision - and has seen its standing in the region diminish steadily.
Leading the agenda of last week's dialogue between ASEAN and the industrial democracies was international economic policy. Secretary Shultz reported on the results of the London economic summit meeting, whose decisions hold so much for the future trading ability of the ASEAN nations. A new round of multilateral trade negotiations is in the offing. The US wants the ASEAN countries to participate fully in preliminary discussions on new trade liberalization. Equally, ASEAN had a number of outstanding trade issues to discuss with Mr. Shultz. Textile import restrictions, renewal of the Generalized System of Preferences that provides for lower US tariffs on some imports from developing countries, and specific commodity issues such as sugar, copper, tin and rubber headed the ASEAN list.
No less important was the political talk. Although ASEAN is not a political or military alliance, there was an exchange of views on the international political climate. East-West relations, prospects for global arms control, the Middle East, and developing US relations with China were very much on the minds of the ministers present in Jakarta. Kampuchea (Cambodia) and Vietnam's rejection of a political settlement to restore the legitimate rights of the Kampuchean people was discussed in detail. As in the past, the US reaffirmed its strong diplomatic and moral support of the ASEAN strategy of maintaining a united front against Vietnam until it is ready to come to terms on Kampuchea.
Personal contact is the bread and butter of diplomatic relations. Secretary Shultz's talks with the ASEAN representatives were stimulating and profitable, most befitting the American dialogue with these increasingly developed and important countries.