THE Pacific has traditionally been a region marked by rugged independence and strong national rivalries. Little wonder then that a growing number of Southeast Asian leaders are increasingly looking inward -- to their own economic policies and strategic interests -- rather than looking outward, to the United States, the Soviet Union, and other major power centers. This new emphasis on self-reliance cannot help benefiting the region, provided it does not foster a climate of diplomatic isolationism and economic protectionism. But surely, it is part of the growing maturity of a region, as of a nation, for it to strive increasingly to make its own way in world affairs.
The new emphasis on regional self-sufficiency has been much in evidence this week in meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at Manila. Philippine President Corazon Aquino, for example, has called for greater economic self-reliance by ASEAN nations acting in concert. ``It is lamentable,'' she contends, ``that despite our experience, we continue to look outwards from the region for the revival of its progress and the fulfillment of its promise.'' A number of Pacific nations have found their prior high growth rates endangered by protectionist policies now being put in place in the Western industrial nations.
Nor is the new mood within the Pacific confined merely to appeals for greater economic self-sufficiency and cooperation. Calls are also increasing for nuclear-free zones that would limit or exclude the basing of nuclear-equipped or nuclear-powered naval ships.
There are already regional precedents for such zones. The 13-nation South Pacific Forum (comprising smaller island communities) has approved a pact that allows member nations to deny access to nuclear-equipped ships.
Then there is the question of New Zealand. The Labour Party government of Prime Minister David Lange is close to enacting legislation that would bar nuclear-equipped or nuclear-powered ships from entering New Zealand waters. Washington has served notice that if the legislation is passed, the United States will end its formal defensive agreement with Wellington.
Economically, Pacific nations have made enormous strides during the past decade. Greater self-reliance and regional cooperation make sense. But what the nations also need to remember is that their recent prosperity has been in large measure linked to the economic expansion of the West. No longer is this a go-it-alone world -- for industrial nations, or for developing nations. In that regard, the strategic security of Southeast Asian nations is closely linked to the security of the United States, an element that -- in the debate on a nuclear-free zone -- merits decided note.