MOVES to reduce United States and Soviet military forces in the Far East lag far behind those in Europe. But the pace has quickened in the search for a regional security setup beyond the cold war.
Defense Secretary Richard Cheney today begins his 10-day visit of three Asian allies of the US, as well as Hong Kong.
His visits include talks about possible US troop cuts and other security changes in the region.
And in coming weeks, Philippines President Corazon Aquino plans to begin talks with the US on whether to grant continued American access to Subic Bay and to other Philippine facilities.
Regional specialists also expect the Soviet Union to increase diplomatic pressure for arms control in Asia before the planned visit to Japan by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev early next year.
On the divided Korean peninsula, which is regarded by analysts here as the region's most-dangerous military confrontation, the US proposed last month to reduce about 2,000 of its nearly 45,000 troops stationed in South Korea.
Similar proposals by Presidents Carter and Nixon in the 1970s were never carried out.
``Public opinion, neither in the United States nor in all likelihood in Asia, will allow us to maintain our current force structure,'' says Stephen Bosworth, former US ambassador to the Philippines and chairman of the US-Japan Foundation.
From today until Saturday, Mr. Cheney will visit South Korea, where officials have not reacted strongly to US plans to end operations at Kwang Ju Air Base, Suwon Air Base, and Taegu Air Base.
Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang Hoon suggested that his country might do without US forces in the next decade.
Cheney's trip is in preparation for a report to Congress, due by April, that will suggest ways of reducing the expense of ``forward deployment'' of US forces in Korea and Japan.
US initiatives to reduce forces are driven more by a need to reduce defense spending than a reaction to changes in Moscow. Cheney plans to consult with Korean officials on troop cutbacks. He also wants South Korea to spend more than the $300 million it already spends on maintaining US forces.
``Burden sharing'' will also be taken up in Japan, where Cheney will stop on Feb. 20 for four days. Japan already contributes about 40 percent of the direct cost of maintaining about 50,000 US troops, but some American military officials say they are reluctant to give Japan any more ``purse strings'' on their resources.
Many countries in Asia, including the Soviet Union, would likely resist any moves by the US that would spur Japan to become a military superpower. Japan already has one of the world's largest conventional forces, and it plans to spend $29.7 billion this year on its military.
``We know what problems we face in the region, so we haven't made any decisions,'' says a high-ranking Japanese foreign ministry official.
``Besides, it is still premature to reduce US forces while the Soviets continue to make qualitative improvements in their naval forces in the Pacific.''
Tokyo officials estimate that the Soviets maintain 10,000 soldiers on four small islands in northern Japan.
``There's no end of the cold war for us,'' says Seizaburo Sato, acting director of the Tokyo-based International Institute for Global Peace.
Mr. Gorbachev has tried since 1986 to improve Soviet ties with noncommunist Asian nations, but has had little success, especially in his idea of a pan-Asia security pact. Unlike in Eastern Europe, the Soviet's two main allies in Asia, Vietnam and North Korea, have made few moves toward democracy.
US military strength in Asia is mainly naval, while Soviet strength lies in ground forces. This differs from the European situation, in which similar forces make it easier to negotiate reductions, say regional US officials.
Too, any serious cut in American military strength in Asia may depend on a relaxation of tension between the two Koreas, a resolution of the Cambodian conflict, and a Soviet pullout of its air and naval forces from Vietnam.
``We, Japan, and other countries will continue to need military forces, but I think there is every prospect that we can have it at a somewhat lower level,'' says Mr. Bosworth. He says a precipitous decision by the US to withdraw militarily from Asia would cause an unwelcome debate in Japan on further re-arming.
US officials say the ``forward deployment'' strategy of keeping forces in Asia has contributed to regional stability, and can only be reduced by consultations with allies.
Any US withdrawal that might led to Japanese rearmament ``would foster arms races and instability throughout the region,'' US Pacific Commander Adm. Huntington Hardisty told Congress last month. Memories of Japanese occupation during World War II are still very much alive in many Asia nations.
Cheney will visit Manila for two days from Feb. 18. US officials say he will explain his decision to reduce US staff at Clark Air Base and the San Miguel communication facility.
Philippine officials are threatening not to begin talks on renewing a bases treaty unless the US Congress provides all the compensation promised under the present agreement. A new treaty will be needed before the current pact expires in September 1991.
Philippines President Aquino has decided not to meet with Cheney, a snub perhaps due to domestic criticism over press reports that she has received criticism from US officials recently. However, Cheney will meet with his counterpart, Fidel Ramos.