Human-rights violations by governments of the five major non-Communist governments of Southeast Asia would not deter the United States from helping improve the living standards of their 250 million people, a top Carter administration official said today.
Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Richard Cooper said the human-rights issue, which President Carter has made a cornerstone of his foreign economic and political policies, was not the "be-all and end-all" of the government's objectives.
A number of U.S. and other Western organizations and prominent individuals have made repeated allegations of serious human-rights violations by the governments of the five countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Cooper, formerly professor of international economics at Yale University, told reporters that his discussions with economic officials from the five governments, which comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, were limited to economic matters and did not touch on politcal or human-right issues.
"We do not see any fundamental difference between expressing the concern of our government about the treatment . . . of persons - dissidents - and abuse, physical abuse, of persons on the one hand and policies which we support of improving the material and economic well-ebing of the individual," Cooper said.
He added that "there should be no doubt about President Carter's firm personal commitment to human rights in the world," which, he said, "the President felt his predecessors did not give enough attention to." He said, however, that human rights "should not be the be-all and end-all."
It was the first time that the United States has met with the 10-year-old group and thus amounted to U.S. recognition of ASEAN as an economic and political force following the Communist victories in Indochina.
The meetings, however, did not produce any specific commitments for economic assistance to ASEAN. Further negotiations were scheduled tentatively for next June in Washington. Meanwhile, ambassadors of the five member countries in Washington are expected to form a committee to serve as a communications channel between the U.S. government and ASEAN.
The United States currently provides an estimated $250 million in bilateral aid to three of the five ASEAN countries, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. In a joint statement released at the conclusion of the meeting held in Manila's luxurious new international convention center, the U.S. delegation declared its "readiness" to supplement this bilateral assistance with aid to ASEAN as a unit.
The statement added that such assistance would be "primarily in areas which satisfy basic human needs such as agriculture, rural development health and nutrition, and education and human resource development."
Cooper explained that U.S. assistance to industrial development, which the ASEAN members consider a top priority, "doesn't meet Congress' interest in projects which have an immediate and direct effect on the majority of people."
At a meeting in Malaysia last month with the heads of the ASEAN governments, Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda made a provisional commitment of $1 billion to five industrial projects.
ASEAN had also sought U.S. support for a program to stabilize earnings from commodity sales to the United States and other developed countries. The Americans, however, said that while they considered price stabilization desirable, they believed the goal could be achieved through other means.
The ASEAN countries dominate worldwide production of half a dozen basic commodities, notably rubber, tin and palm oil. The United States in already a major purchaser of these. The association is now seeking imrpoved markets in the United States for other tropical products.
At the same time, the region's governments are particularly concerned about the impact of a possible change in the U.S. law which now allows U.S. firms to withhold tax payments on money earned abroad until profits are repatriated to the United States. They fear a change in the law would cut back on further private investment.