FOR West Coast Americans, China and Japan are the Far West. So are the Philippines, Australia, and the coral-lagooned islands of the South Pacific. From the mist-shrouded Aleutians to the pounding surf of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the mighty Pacific washes all these lands. But is there a common theme that unites their myriad inhabitants? If there is, it can only be a theme common to the global community. For in its broadest sense, the ``Pacific Basin'' embraces half of mankind, including the world's richest, biggest, most powerful nations as well as the poorest, smallest, and weakest.
Phrases like ``Pacific Community'' and ``Pacific era'' make catchy slogans, but they are bound to ruffle feathers among the United States' European allies across that other ocean, the Atlantic. Is it tactful, even accurate, to talk of the world's political and economic center of gravity as shifting progressively westward, from Europe to America and now possibly to Japan?
A close look at the components of the Pacific community finds Pacific Rim and island states clumped in political and economic groupings - some firm, some fluid, but none with the cohesive historic and geographic links of, say, the European Community or of the North Atlantic alliance. In fact, the impulse to articulate the concept of a Pacific Basin community may have originated in places like Tokyo, Seoul, or Canberra precisely because the nations of this ocean-linked region have so much less in common with their immediate neighbors than do their West European or North Atlantic conferees.
Western experts see ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the more recent 13-nation South Pacific Forum as promising developments. But can Japan participate meaningfully in the work of either except as an outside source of funds and possibly of markets? And how can China and its billion people avoid being seen as a threatening, brooding shadow by the ministates in whose waters Chinese naval vessels periodically gather (as do Soviet and American vessels, for that matter) to retrieve test missiles fired from the mainland?
If the Pacific Basin is perceived more as a geographical area than a would-be agglomeration of nations moving onto the center stage of world history, one sees, first of all, the same superpower rivalry between Washington and Moscow at work in this arena as in the rest of the planet and extending, now, into space. If Mikhail Gorbachev, the formidable general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, makes a lengthy speech in Vladivostok, as he did last summer, his every word is analyzed for clues as to how Soviet policy toward Asia and the Pacific may change under his aegis. The speech was indeed important, a warning that Soviet policy will become much more many-stranded, no longer reliant purely on military muscle and propaganda clich'es.
But on both the communist and Western sides, alliances are much less tidy than across the Atlantic and into Europe. There is no equivalent of NATO, nor of the Warsaw Pact. Despite warming economic ties, China and the Soviet Union remain wary antagonists, in defense and politics. Vietnam and its client states, Laos and Cambodia, are closely tied to the Soviet Union, as is landlocked, sprawling Mongolia. North Korea's Kim Il Sung tilts now toward Peking, now toward Moscow.
On the Western side, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand all have separate bilateral defense ties with the US. Taiwan has no formal ties with Washington anymore, but could probably count on American military aid if subject to unprovoked attack from the mainland. Australia and New Zealand have a trilateral alliance with the US, but New Zealand has in effect been removed from the alliance since Prime Minister David Lange, on coming to power in 1984, refused to allow port calls by nuclear-armed US warships.
MEANWHILE, the Soviet Union strengthens its presence in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay and steadily builds up its blue-water Navy. A formidable array of surface ships and submarines, bombers and fighters, works out of Cam Ranh, asserting the Soviet Union's determination to project power southward to the Strait of Malacca and on into the Indian Ocean. In a real war, American naval authorities claim, Cam Ranh would quickly be choked off. But for now, Cam Ranh is a disquieting reminder of the Soviet Pacific Fleet's increasing strategic outreach.
Yet the most important dynamics of the Pacific region are not the Soviet threat per se, but internal developments and how these in turn may affect Soviet evaluations of the presence or absence of targets of opportunity, say experts who follow the region closely. Whither China, for instance, after former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang's enforced resignation?
A prosperous and growing China, ruled by the Communist Party but as free, say, as South Korea or Taiwan in economic terms, would have had an enormous impact throughout the western rim of the Pacific and indeed on the entire global community. Such a possibility has now receded almost to a vanishing point. Analysts say that even if economic reforms continue, China is likely to remain as tightly controlled as East Germany or Czechoslovakia, with all the shortages and inefficiencies that characterize this type of centralized command economy.
Hong Kong's concerns about being swallowed up into China's belly after 1997 have been enhanced by the chain of events following Mr. Hu's ouster. Taiwan, now taking its own hesitant steps toward a multiparty democracy, is less likely than ever to accept reunification with a mainland where communist orthodoxy is once again a rigid rule. The bland reassurances of Premier Zhao Ziyang and his colleagues that economic reforms will continue and that the door to the West remains wide open are belied every day by articles in the official Chinese mass media emphasizing the primacy of party control.
The disgraced Hu and his followers recognized that it was essential for a factory manager to be independent of his party secretary if he was going to make decisions speedy and accurate enough to compete effectively in the marketplace. Getting the party to give up control even at this basic level was a highly political act. Would China's leaders from Deng Xiaoping on down have the cool courage not to lose their nerve in the face of predictable, ferocious opposition from party conservatives?
Student demonstrations in Shanghai and Peking filled TV screens. But the nitty-gritty of party control was what the Chinese of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and of the diaspora sprinkled throughout Southeast Asia watched for and wondered about. Their disappointment as they heard of Hu's removal was all the greater because their hopes of a China set firmly on the path of economic and political reform had been so high.
In a wider context, the fate of democracy in Pacific Basin countries such as South Korea or the Philippines, Thailand, or Indonesia will be an indication of how solid or cohesive a union the basin countries can eventually form.
With all its internal squabbles, the European Community has an inner cohesion born not only of a common cultural heritage but from the consciousness that each member is a working democracy. Greece, Spain, and Portugal were not admitted until they emerged from authoritarian rule.
The Pacific Basin, however, comprises countries in varying stages of political development, from mature democracies such as the US (widely considered a Pacific Basin country), Australia, or Japan to authoritarian states such as South Korea or Indonesia. In between are nations like Thailand or the Philippines - democratic to a degree today, but with histories of coups or rebellions and still feeling their way forward to the form of government best suited to their increasingly literate and sophisticated citizenries.
DURING 1987, the Pacific Rim states will be watching developments in the Philippines and South Korea with particular concern, analysts of the region predict. If Corazon Aquino, herself the daughter of one of the Philippines' richest landlord families, can successfully manage a transition from Marcos-style cronyism to a democracy undergirded by social justice, economic development can make a fresh start and the inherent dynamism of a profit-minded peasantry can be unleashed. The communists will then have to focus exclusively on parliamentary struggle to obtain their goals, or risk becoming irrelevant to the political process. But this is a big ``if,'' and many observers believe that, although Mrs. Aquino may have the will, there are too many opposing forces within her own camp to make a tidy solution easy.
South Korea faces an even more uncertain future. Authoritarian President Chun Doo Hwan has pledged to step down early in 1988, when his seven-year term expires. Seoul will host the Olympics that year, and Chun's scenario calls for a new president and Cabinet to be in place long before the first athletes arrive.
Mr. Chun's own future role remains unclear. Diplomatic observers in Seoul ask whether he will seek to continue to rule from behind the scenes or whether he will be content to play the role of elder statesman. Meanwhile, South Korea's Army officer corps remains silent but powerful. It seems determined to prevent either of the two top leaders of the opposition - Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung - from ever coming to power through popular elections.
But will younger elements in the officer corps try to remove the generals of Chun's generation in the same way Chun and his fellow officers removed the generals of assassinated President Park Chung Hee's generation?
WESTERN analysts say that with all the camaraderie that American officers enjoy with their South Korean counterparts, this is one area they are never allowed to explore. But as democracy-demanding student activists confront an increasingly jittery regime feeling the pressure of its self-imposed deadline for transition to a new president, South Korea's principal ally, the US, is going to find great difficulty remaining on the sidelines. Yet it is not easy to see what influence outsiders, however interested, can bring to bear on so potentially explosive a situation.
Eventually, Washington may have to make up its mind in the same way it did in the Philippines, when the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos regime was beginning to crumble before Aquino and her ``people power,'' solidly supported by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. At one moment, the regime seemed solidly entrenched. At the next moment, it was clearly on its way out.
In South Korea, the dangers of the situation are compounded by the presence of aggressive North Korean forces poised beyond the demilitarized zone only 40 miles from Seoul.
The Chun regime often exploits the North Korean challenge to justify twists and turns in its own authoritarian policies; yet the danger is real, and it would be unrealistic to expect Soviet or Chinese constraints on Pyongyang to prove effective in all circumstances.
Japan, South Korea's closest democratic neighbor, is much less immediately involved than is the US, yet any instability on the Korean Peninsula is bound to rouse concerns that matters may get out of hand. If China were clearly embarked on political reform, the prospects for the western rim of the Pacific would be brighter, but the circumstances of Hu Yaobang's ouster cloud what had previously seemed a well-worked-out succession from octogenarian Deng Xiaoping to Hu and his followers, and add new uncertainties.
In sum, say analysts of the region, 1987 is likely to be a year when assumptions that seemed valid the previous year will have to be looked at anew. With Mr. Gorbachev setting the Soviet Union on a path of economic reform, the main preoccupation, whether in Moscow, Peking, or Seoul, is domestic. But the mechanisms for seeing that these domestic preoccupations are not derailed by external considerations are but imperfectly in place.
For the nations of the Pacific Rim, the Year of the Rabbit is likely to be a season of watchful waiting.