Several Southeast Asian nations have rebuffed a Soviet effort to increase its influence and visibility in that region through port calls of Soviet Warships, diplomatic sources said yesterday.
The unsuccessful effort to arrange stops by two Soviet military vessels in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand is the latest indication of Moscow's growing interest and activity in the area. The Soviet Union's bitter rivalry with the People's Republic of China is believed to provide the impetus and Moscow's alliance with Vietnam to provide the logistical capability for expanded naval activity in Southeast Asia.
News reports from several Asian capitals, confirmed by U.S. officials here, said the Soviets had requested permission for a "goodwill visit," including shore leave for Soviet sailors, by the 7,000-ton training ship Borodino, a submarine tender, and the 4,000-ton guided missile destroyer Gnevny, which are cruising in the area.
A Philippine Foreign Ministry statement said the Soviet Embassy in Manila was informed Monday that such a port visit would not be possible. Indonesian state radio and news reports said requests for port calls also have been stalled or rejected by Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. There were suggestions that the states, which are fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), took the action in concert.
Singapore, also a member of the ASEAN group, apparently was not asked to allow port calls.
State Department officials said the Soviets have made previous requests to Southeast Asian nations for military port calls over the past several years, uithout success. The new requests took on greater importance and attracted greater attention because the Soviet Pacific fleet has begun operations in the area, using Vietnamese ports.
One of the Asian nations was informed that the two Soviet ships listed in the most recent requests are on their way to Haiphong. Soviet warships also have been using the former U.S. port facilities at Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay as military ties with Vietnam have become closer. The use of Vietnamese ports, the only ones available to the Soviets betueen Vladivostok and Sri Lanka, has greatly extended the range and cruising capacity of the Soviet navy.
American officials said Soviet TU95 reconnaissance planes periodically use Da Nang as a base for surveillance of the U.S. Seventh Fleet and Asian subjects. The Soviets also are reported to have built near Cam Ranh Bay a large communications monitoring station targeted primarily at China and to have installed secure communications facilities in Hanoi. As many as 5,000 Soviet military advisers and other personnel reportedly are stationed in Vietnam.
Southeast Asian countries are particularly sensitive to Soviet military activity at the moment because of the widespread expectation that Vietnam soon will begin a new offensive against Cambodia, with Soviet logistical aid. The Asian nations appear to feel threatened, in varying degrees, by the Vietnamese military activity.
Asian capitals also reported sporadic signs of increasing Soviet diplomatic activity.
Malaysian Prime Minister Hussein Onn was scheduled to arrive in Moscow yesterday on an eight-day official visit to the Soviet Union. Thailand's Prime Minister Kriangsak Chamanan paid an official visit to Moscow earlier this year.
Moscow recently asked the Thais for a substantial increase in the size of the Soviet Embassy in Bangkok. The Soviets evidently want to use the embassy, which already numbers about 200 people, as a listening post.The Thais are expected to refuse the request.
Southeast Asian nations are leery of becoming involved in the Sino-Soviet dispute. Several of the nations have large Chinese ethnic minorities. The increasing Soviet activity also has generated concern in Japan, uhere it has raised new questions about the viability of the U.S. military umbrella.