Chinese and Soviets, eager for strong ties, court Southeast Asia. China seems to have the edge on political, economic fronts

The countries of Southeast Asia are being courted assiduously by China and the Soviet Union, who want to forge stronger political and economic links in the region. At the moment, China seems to have the edge in moving toward lasting and meaningful ties.

Chinese Vice-Premier Tian Jiyun is in Thailand wrapping up a high-profile tour through most of the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- a tour that diplomats believe could produce important gains for Peking. Mr. Tian has been:

Talking of trade deals and industrial joint ventures throughout Southeast Asia.

Reassuring Malaysia that China is not interested in encouraging political dissent among members of Malaysia's large Chinese minority -- important at a time when racial tension is mounting in Malaysia.

Showing Chinese support for the idea proposed by ASEAN several years ago of a Southeast Asian nuclear-weapons-free zone.

Saying Peking fully supports ASEAN's stand on the Cambodia situation -- that Vietnam must end its occupation.

China and ASEAN -- composed of Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei -- find themselves in general accord on the Cambodian situation. Both support the anti-Vietnamese resistance, led by the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, a loose grouping of the communist Khmer Rouge and two anticommunist factions. China backs the Khmer Rouge. ASEAN backs the noncommunist factions and has been active in winning support in the West for the coalition's claim to be the Cambodian people's legitimate representative -- instead of the Vietnamese-backed government of Heng Samrin in Phnom Penh.

By comparison, the Soviet Union is being told bluntly in most ASEAN capitals that its diplomatic courtship doesn't stand a chance until Moscow exerts its influence to get Vietnam to the negotiating table for talks on Cambodian independence.

Responding to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's Asian-initiative speech in Vladivostock last July, Singapore Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan said Moscow could not hope to attain ``business as usual'' until it nudged Vietnam toward negotiations.

He noted Soviet claims to have no influence over Hanoi, but asked: ``How can that be when, in fact, [the Soviets] are supplying . . . arms and giving aid to Vietnam to pursue [Soviet] policy]?''

The one area in which ASEAN and China have differed slightly is over Peking's support of the communist Khmer Rouge, which was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. Vice-Premier Tian assured his ASEAN hosts that China is not looking for a pro-Peking government in Cambodia, but one that would be independent, neutral, and friendly to its neighbors, including Vietnam.

China is interested in getting financing for its industrial development in Singapore and is also looking to tap the tiny island republic's expertise in such areas as infrastructure development.

While in Kuala Lumpur last week, Tian pleased his Malaysian hosts by indicating a Chinese desire to buy more, invest more, and trade more -- especially by cutting out Singapore's traditional middleman role.

And Indonesia -- after more than two decades without formal ties after an abortive communist coup in 1965 -- has begun to show a more relaxed attitude towards China. The two are talking about Cambodia and have also begun a tentative direct trade, which Peking hopes will be a springboard to eventual diplomatic ties.

China and the Soviet Union are also making great efforts to win influence in Thailand, which has a pivotal geographic role abutting Vietnam-dominated Cambodia and Laos. The Soviets, who have just launched their first trade and industry exhibition in Thailand, hope to gain some advantage from current Thai anger over US protectionism and food export subsidies that undercut key Thai exports such as rice and sugar.

``There are good prospects for furthering trade and economic relations'' with the Soviet Union, says Yuri Mikhailov, Soviet trade commissioner for Thailand.

But some analysts point out that Moscow has been pursuing similar objectives in Southeast Asia for the past 30 years or more with little tangible success.

As far as trade with the Soviets is concerned, Singapore is unimpressed. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew says Asians can get products similar to what the Soviets are selling at cheaper prices elsewhere. And Moscow prefers to make barter deals rather than pay cash.

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