FOR years a testing ground for world and regional powers, Southeast Asia wants President Bush to show that the area still matters.
With a three-day visit beginning Jan. 3, Mr. Bush becomes the first United States president to visit Singapore, a small but muscular economic power and cornerstone of a region grappling with consequences of the cold war's end and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Amid a shrinking American presence, nations in the region are fretting over a security vacuum left by US defense cutbacks and trade tensions with Japan that could undermine Southeast Asia's dynamic economies. There is also the matter of a stubborn US-led economic embargo blocking normal ties with longtime regional outcast Vietnam.
A move to drop the embargo "could signal if the United States wants to continue on in a leadership role in the post-cold-war era," says a diplomat from one member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a noncommunist alliance that includes Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. This year noncommunist countries in the region have stepped up investment in Vietnam, and Japan is pressuring the US to end the blockade.
Bush's visit comes even as the dominant symbol of US military stewardship in Southeast Asia, the giant Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, moves toward closure. Talks for an extended three-year withdrawal broke down recently after the US refused to spell out its departure timetable or say if nuclear weapons are kept at the base. On Dec. 27, Philippine President Corazon Aquino, who fought to delay the pullout in order to cushion the country's battered economy, issued a formal notice for the US to leave its largest overseas defense facility by the end of 1992.
In countries with vivid memories of Japan's World War II occupation, leaders watch for any wavering of US commitment to security links with Tokyo, for years a key to Asian stability, Western and Asian analysts say.
Driven by fears of each other and longstanding rivalries over territory, religion, and race, Southeast Asian countries also will be looking for US willingness to continue brokering regional peace through bilateral ties. Some ASEAN observers say the US could even begin easing its resistance to a proposed multilateral defense arrangement in Asia.
"It can go very wrong if America changes its policy toward either Japan or the rest of Asia," senior Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew said in a recent speech.
Economic disruption looms as the most immediate worry of countries where political stability pivots on strong growth. Concerned about emerging trade blocs in Europe and America, Southeast Asian nations have dabbled with proposals for a Japanese-led trade alliance or less-formal trade cooperation. But because they are dependent upon trade with the US, the fiercely competitive nations have buckled under to American opposition to an Asian trade bloc.
Two years ago, the US went along with more than 10 other Pacific Basin countries and formed the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group. Still, concerns remain that this organization could evolve into a formal bloc. Asian analysts say this could become a reality if trade strains between the US and Japan contribute to a breakdown in the Uruguay round of free-trade talks and the world fragments into rival trade blocs.
To ease those strains with Japan, the US is under pressure to lift its economic embargo against Vietnam, a sizable, potentially rich market considered one of the remaining frontiers for aggressive Asian businessmen. In December, following a meeting of senior Japanese diplomats based in Southeast Asia, US officials were told that Japan frowns on free-trade lectures from the US as long as this embargo remains.
Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia in 1989 and the signing of a United Nations-sponsored peace accord this fall have sparked a growing flow of Asian investment into war-shattered Indochina in defiance of the embargo.
But still smarting from its defeat 16 years after the fall of South Vietnam, Washington sustains the blockade, largely to placate a powerful domestic lobby that demands a Vietnamese accounting for Americans taken prisoner or missing in action from the Vietnam War.
Criticizing Washington for obstructing trade even as it promotes more American business involvement in the region, Western and Asian analysts say the embargo increasingly isolates the recession-battered US economy.
"If George Bush announces that the world has changed and we have to get on with it, I think that's a feeling that many in the region would share," says an analyst in Singapore.
The region's security is also in flux following the Cambodian peace accord and the pending closing of American military facilities in the Philippines. Washington is trying to replace Subic with military-servicing arrangements elsewhere around the region. Results have been mixed.
Singapore has agreed to provide a port and air base, and discussions are under way with Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. But Thailand, a US military staging ground during the Vietnam War, fears discord at home.
With a number of lingering regional flash points, a burgeoning arms race in Southeast Asia, and concerns about the ambitions of emergent naval powers (India and China as well as Japan), the US is still needed to broker security, diplomats and analysts say.
"This is not the time for neo-isolationism in the United States," says an Asian diplomat referring to Bush's critics, who contend that the president spends more time on foreign policy than pressing domestic issues.