BANGKOK, Thailand — Economic hardship is testing the ties between the non-communist countries of Southeast Asia and the United States, their partner in progress in the 1970s and early 1980s.
In a word, the governments of this developing region think they are being ignored.
For the past few years, individual members of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have complained about various U.S. economic policies that affect them directly. President Reagan's recent visit to Bali, Indonesia, and Secretary of State George P. Shultz's talks with ASEAN officials have put the problem into broader focus.
"We must ask and we expect the cooperation of rich developed countries to take our needs and interests into account in the management of the world economy," Singapore Foreign Minister Suppiah Dhanabalan said. "The insistent demands of the poor countries and the indifference of rich countries have ended in a sterile impasse. ASEAN and the United States must avoid coming to the same end."
Fifth-Largest U.S. Trading Partner
Arguing for a more balanced view in Washington, Dhanabalan also said protectionist sentiment in the United States, spurred by the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, is spilling over to affect Southeast Asia.
Washington seems to see the problem as a forest, while the six ASEAN countries--Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines--concentrate on the trees.
In response to written questions submitted by newspapers in the region before his trip to Bali, Reagan defended the U.S. policy toward ASEAN.
"My efforts over the past few years to maintain a free and open international trading system have served the interests of both the United States and ASEAN well, despite the pressure of different and competing interests," he said.
Reagan pointed out that the ASEAN countries combined constitute the fifth-largest U.S. trading partner (behind Canada, the European Economic Communities, Japan and Mexico) and that the level of trade with ASEAN has risen to $23.5 billion last year from less than $1 billion in 1967. He also noted that the United States had a trade deficit of $7.7 billion with the ASEAN countries in 1985.
But the individual ASEAN countries have a long list of complaints--aired earlier and repeated at Bali.
- The Thais are angry about the recently enacted U.S. Farm Act, which will make U.S. rice farmers more competitive with the Thais, the world export leaders, through a system of subsidies. "The interests of 12 million Thais, whose incomes depend one way or another on the export price of rice, could be sacrificed for the sake of 55,000 American rice farmers," a Thai official said. Washington officials say there is flexibility in the act. Reagan, in the interview, said: "We will be sensitive to the concerns of Thailand and other rice exporters."
- Thai and other ASEAN textile and garment producers continue to be upset about the protectionist Jenkins Bill, approved by Congress in 1985 and vetoed by Reagan. Its supporters will attempt to override the veto later this year.
- Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia, all oil exporters, and Singapore, a major refiner, have been hurt by the world decline in petroleum prices and ask whether the United States has any interest in helping to stabilize the market.
Misunderstanding of U.S. Political System
Collapsed commodity prices in tin, rubber and sugar have severely affected a number of Southeast Asian economies, including the flattest--that of the Philippines. Unemployment in the sugar industry is a tinder box for the communist-led insurgency in the Philippines, and any major dislocation in the Thai rice income would threaten political stability here.
Some differences can be laid to a misunderstanding of the American political system. What free-trader Reagan might want does not necessarily emerge from Congress. For observers in fledgling democracies where the head of state generally gets what he wants, the U.S. Congress can be baffling.
Furthermore, U.S. analysts have pointed out that ASEAN itself is not free from protectionism. Trade among the six member countries constitutes only 20% of total ASEAN trade.