Bush Reassures Asians of Continued US Engagement


PRESIDENT George Bush has served notice of a less dominant United States in Asia's shifting security picture.

In a weekend speech in Singapore, the second stop in a four-nation swing through Asia and Australia, Mr. Bush signaled new US defense cutbacks ahead and an expanded role for Japan in financing regional security.

The American leader also announced the lifting of a trade embargo against Cambodia in the wake of a recent peace accord while leaving in place an economic blockade of international financing and investment in Vietnam.

The expected loss this year of Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, among the largest US overseas defense facilities, "will not spell the end to the American engagement," Bush said. Still, he added, "The end to the cold war gives the United States an opportunity to restructure its military."

In a message to the noncommunist Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Bush reassured anxious friends with new protection and chided reluctant allies for not shouldering more of the burden and allowing expanded use of air and naval facilities.

To replace the services now provided at Subic, the US has sought to extend its longstanding policy of bilateral security arrangements and reach new commercial access agreements among ASEAN countries including Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. The US has opposed efforts to establish a mutual defense arrangement in Asia.

Thailand, which hosted American air bases during the Vietnam War, is hesitant to broaden once again military links with the US.

On the other hand, Singapore, a tiny city-state which sits astride key sea lanes and frets over a retreating US, was reassured by American plans to increase use of the country's naval and air bases.

Singapore will become the new naval command headquarters of the US Seventh Fleet, now based in the Philippines. Under the plan, the number of US Navy personnel in the country will increase from 96 to 200, although officials say the US has no intention of making Singapore a replacement base for Subic.

The fast-growing countries of Southeast Asia will be closely watching Bush's visit to Japan later this week and talks on touchy trade issues. In a region still haunted by Japanese invasion and occupation during World War II, many fear that a trade split could lead to the breakdown of the long standing US-Japanese security arrangement and a resurgence of Japanese militarism.

There is also concern that an economic backlash in the US, their main trading partner, will spill over and batter the economies of Southeast Asia as well as Japan.

During his visit, Bush urged closer economic ties with the United States and insisted that a proposed free-trade area linking the US, Canada, and Mexico would not become a protectionist trade bloc. Southeast Asia has dabbled with proposals for a Japan-lead Asian trading bloc but has bowed to US opposition to the idea.

In Cambodia, the end of the nearly 17-year-old trade embargo comes amid political and economic chaos pending the arrival this spring of United Nations peacekeeping troops and administrators to oversee the run-up to national elections expected in early 1993.

The four warring Cambodian factions signed a peace accord in October. But since then, the country has been torn by continued fighting in the countryside as well as urban riots against returning Khmer Rouge leaders and corrupt officials in the Phnom Penh regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen, delaying implementation of the agreement.

At the first meeting of the reconciliation body known as the Supreme National Council, leaders of the four factions called for the immediate arrival of UN soldiers to patrol the uneasy peace.

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