Japan and Australia made tennous assurances today that they would increase financial support to the five non-Communist countries of Southeast Asia but delayed most substantive commitments for further consideration.
Leaders of the five-member Association of Southeast Asian nations nevertheless expressed satisfaction at the outcome of their first discussions with the heads of the two governments. A senior Asean official called the results "A good start, particularly when you consider that our expectations were low."
In one sense perhaps the most significant accomplishment of two days of meetings with Prime Ministers Takeo Fukuda and Malcolm Fraser was their recognition of ASEAN as a cohesive force at a time when the three Communist governments of Indochina have taken an antagonistic stand against the association.
This was spelled out in a joint statement by the ASEAN leaders - from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines - and Fukuda.
The 3,000 world document described the "significant achievements' during ASEAN's 10 years of existence as "positive indicators of the viability and vitality of ASEAN as a self-reliant regional association which could contribute to the stability and progress of Southeast Asia."
ASEAN also hopes to gain expanded recognition and, in the longer term, increased economic support from the United States as a follow-up to the discussions with Japan and Australia.
ASEAN economic officials are scheduled to meet in Manila next month with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke.Indonesian Planning Minister Widjojo Nitisastro said today that "a greater awareness of ASEAN" was beginning to take shape in the United States.
Both Fukuda and Fraser delicately evaded questions about their governments' possible political support for ASEAN against the Indochinese states. Without naming the Communist governments, the Japanese statement urged that they and ASEAN "shape new relations" and said that Japan and ASEAN "reaffirmed their determination to intensify their efforts to achieve these objectives."
According to a senior ASEAN official, the associations' five prime ministers did not ask for anything more in this regard for Fukuda.
While most of the ASEAN heads of government adopted a conciliatory attitude toward Vietnam, Cambodia and Loas at a closed two-day meeting which preceded the sessions with Fukuda and Fraser. Thailand's Prime Minister Thanin Kraivichien warned of a "threat" by the Communists.
Asked if he agreed with Thanin's assessment, Fraser, who has a reputation as a determined anti-Communist, told reporters: "I don't want to use that term. But we must recognize the problem and the closer one is to fire, the more one feels it."
Fukuda, is under considerable pressure from Japan's powerful industrialists to spoil their initial steps toward better ties with the Communists.
A Japanese source at today's meeting said that his country's businessmen believed great profits could be made in Vietnam and that doing business there would be easier than in the capitalist ASEAN countries "because state control, lack of red tape and no corruption are all in Hanoi's favor."
This interest in Indochina is understood to be the foremost of three major reasons why Japan did not fully commit itself to ASEAN's requests for specific economic assistance. The second, according to an informed source, is that Fukuda, whom ASEAN leaders describe as a "hard-nosed businessman," is not fully convinced that support for ASEAN will pay sufficient dividends with incomplete plans for five proposed major industrial projects for which ASEAN has requested $1 billion from Tokyo.
At the same time, 18 per cent of Japan's private investment throughout the world is already in the ASEAN regoin, and some ASEAN officials have recently expressed concern that any increase would make Japan overly dominant in the regions economy.
In an extensive review of Japan's role in the area, the Kuala Lumpur-based Business Times newspaper said yesterday that "there are fears in some quarters that Japan will accomplish by business imperialism what it could not do in the (Second World) war."