SOUTHEAST Asians searching for a new regional security equation are uneasy about a bigger political role for Japan. During a 10-day swing through five member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ending May 6, Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu inched his country toward a higher political profile in the region, analysts say.
He apologized for Japan's wartime aggression, interceded diplomatically in Cambodia's 12-year-old civil war, pledged to remain within the security ambit dominated by the United States, and won acquiescence for the decision to send Japanese minesweepers to the Gulf.
But as Japan toys with a broader role, many Southeast Asians still worry about the country that occupied and brutalized them a half century ago.
Mr. Kaifu's initiative comes as the military retrenchment of the US and the withdrawal of the Soviet Union has stirred a security debate across the region.
"The Japanese and ASEAN realize they need each other economically. But despite all their aid, Japan has never been comfortable with a broader role," says an analyst in Singapore, one of Tokyo's most hard-line opponents. "Japan is now showing it wants to play that bigger role."
"The view toward Japan is one of ambivalence," says Kusuma Snitwongse, a political analyst in Bangkok. "We need Japan for economic growth, but there's concern that we'll become over-dependent."
Kaifu's visit comes amid a stalemate between the US and the Philippines over the future of American bases that have dominated Southeast Asia's security profile for years.
Lengthy negotiations over Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station collapsed late last week in a deadlock over compensation and the length of a new treaty. The lease on the facilities expires in September.
Manila has offered a maximum seven-year lease at US$825 million annually for use of the facilities, which guard vital trade routes for Japan and other Asian nations. Washington wants use for 10 to 12 years, but says it can offer no more than $360 million yearly, plus some trade concessions and debt relief.
The US bases, a wrenching domestic issue in the Philippines, are also stirring debate among other countries that have seen the American presence as a check on the now-retreating Soviets and the resurging Japanese.
Japan, the Philippines' largest aid donor, as well as Australia, Thailand, and Singapore, endorse continued American use of the facilities, while the Philippine Senate opposes it. The 32-member body must ratify the treaty.
Kaifu also cautioned the Philippines against seeking a partial write-off of its official debt. Many politicians and legislators have demanded to know why Manila cannot follow Poland's lead and eliminate part of its debt burden.
Still, the US bases are seen as a security check on Japan, even as the region welcomes Japanese investment.
In light of US intentions to eventually withdraw from the Philippines, Manila wants to draw up a new regional security arrangement and will host a conference for Southeast Asian countries in June. The US is pushing a broader security arrangement including Japan and noncommunist Southeast Asia.
"If we remove the American presence here, the Japanese will rearm and move in as fast as the Americans move out," says Emilio Osmena, a prominent Filipino businessman and politician whose father was killed by the Japanese.
Still, Asian diplomats say, Kaifu went to great pains to calm fears of a resugent, militaristic Japan, expressing "our sincere contrition at Japanese past actions, which inflicted unbearable suffering and sorrow upon a great many people of the Asia-Pacific region."
The prime minister also defended the decision to send four small minesweepers and two escort ships to the Gulf as consistent with Japan's noncombat policy.
"Japan has made a positive effort to contribute to the resolution of regional conflicts and disputes, and I assure you we are determined to do even more in the future," Kaifu said in Singapore.
Separately, Kaifu refused to endorse Malaysia's proposal for an East Asian economic alliance lead by Japan. The plan is one of several proposed Asian counterweights to the post-1992 European Community market and the US-Canada free trade area.
Japan, locked in trade disputes with the US and Europe, its major markets, has withheld support for an Asian trading bloc.