SECRETARY of State James Baker III's trip to Southeast Asia this week is important as both symbol and substance. For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which today begins its annual foreign ministers' meeting in Brunei, Secretary Baker's participation in the postsummit dialogue provides the signal Asians were looking for: that the Bush administration is committed to the region. During the Reagan years, the United States secretary of state missed the ASEAN summit (linking Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Brunei) only in 1982.
Mr. Baker and his deputies have been emphasizing a US desire to establish a ``new Pacific partnership'' as part of the ``new world order'' that is taking shape.
``To build that new partnership, we need continued American engagement in the region's politics, commerce, and security,'' Baker told the Asia Society last week. ``We need a more creative sharing of global responsibilities with Japan. And we also need a new mechanism to increase economic cooperation throughout the Pacific Rim.''
But the dominant issue at this summit, as it has been for more than 10 years, will be Cambodia. With Vietnam pledging to withdraw from its neighbor by the end of September, this is a crucial time for ASEAN. Vietnam's pullout creates the potential for civil war in Cambodia and the possibility that the Khmer Rouge, with its history of mass terror, could return to power.
At a recent session with journalists, ASEAN ambassadors stressed the importance of the post-ministerial consultations with ASEAN's six so-called dialogue partners - the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the European Community - as brainstorming sessions on Cambodia.
On July 24, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the head of Cambodia's noncommunist resistance, meets with Hun Sen, prime minister in the Vietnamese-installed Cambodian government. If that meeting is successful, the Cambodian government and the three resistance factions will meet. Then, on Aug. 4, France will host an international conference that will include the Soviet Union, China (the Khmer Rouge's principal patron), Vietnam, and ASEAN to try to sustain momentum toward reaching a Cambodian solution.
``If we don't succeed in getting a comprehensive agreement'' before Sept. 30, Ambassador Tommy Koh of Singapore said, ``there is a very certain possibility of a return to killing fields.''
The US and ASEAN are in basic agreement over the need for verification of the Vietnamese withdrawal, the need to prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power, and for free elections in Cambodia. One point of debate is the Bush administration's desire to send weapons to the noncommunist resistance to boost its negotiating strength. Last Thursday, as part of the foreign-aid authorization bill, the US House of Representatives approved an unspecified amount of aid for the NCR. But Ambassador Koh cautioned against putting too much emphasis on lethal aid.
``The diplomatic track is just as important - maybe even more important,'' he said.
Events in China are also expected to be a factor at the Brunei summit. Though no joint declarations are anticipated, the potential effect of China's political upheaval on its involvement in Cambodia is sure to be discussed. In a paper on the ASEAN summit, Prof. Donald Weatherbee of the University of South Carolina writes: ``The apparent triumph of the hard-liners may lead to less Chinese willingness to restrain the Khmer Rouge. It also poses a problem for the Paris conference. The absence of China, or a stubborn China, will prevent any real progress.''
The ASEAN envoys pointed to Deng Xiaoping's continued leadership, implying a certain level of continuity in policy toward Cambodia. But, said Thai Ambassador Vitthya Vejjajiva: ``Vietnam is not going to sit tight as if nothing happened in Beijing.
Another item on the US-ASEAN agenda, and a potential source of tension, will be the refugee question. While ASEAN nations grow increasingly impatient over the swelling ranks of Vietnamese refugees on their soil, the US opposes forced repatriation.
Before Baker goes to Brunei, he will visit Tokyo July 4-5 for the formal launching of the Multilateral Assistance Initiative for the Philippines. The US, with Japan, Europe, and other Asian nations, hopes to raise $10 billion over five years to support Philippine economic reform and investment. In Tokyo, foreign officials will pledge funds to begin the project. The US plans to contribute $1 billion over five years.