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Superpowers agitate Asian waters

Growing United States-Soviet tension is casting a lengthening shadow over Southeast Asia. The twin crisis points of Afghanistan to the west and IndoChina to the east are increasing American and Soviet naval maneuvers in both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Southeast Asian nations bordering the strategic Strait of Malacca connecting the two oceans are rethinking their relationships with both the Soviet Union and the United States. And one possibility is widening splits within the regional Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN), which consists of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

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Nowhere is all this more evident than in Singapore. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the "lion city" has been reconsidering its policy of "nonalignment" and moving closer to the American camp.

Meanwhile there has been a notable increase in American naval movements through Singapore waters in the last few weeks, as US vessels beef up the American military presence in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.

An American military attche refused any discussion with this correspondent. But one well-informed non-American analyst notes US military ship movements through Singapore waters have increased from about once a month to two or three times a week.

Not all ASEAN nations agree with Singapore's apparently growing alignment with US. For example, Malaysian officials have expressed concern over the possibility that Singapore will provide logistical support for an American plan to enlarge base and harbor facilities at the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

Thailand is closest to Singapore in that it sees its major danger as coming from Soviet-backed Vietnam. Strongly anti-Vietnam, Singapore vigorously backs Thailand. With close ties to America and leanings toward China, Thailand is receiving American military aid in the form of tanks and planes. And there is talk of reviving a more formal kind of alliance.

Proposals to have American vessels enter Thai waters to patrol against pirates who prey on Vietnamese refugee boats are also sensitive because this would bring Thailand further into the American orbit.

By contrast, Malaysia and Indonesia see China, not the Soviet Union, as the major threat. Both favor improved relations with Vietnam. They fear China because both have potentially restive Chinese populations who could be supported by Peking. The Philippines is less immediately involved.

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But the picture is full of paradoxes. From a cable car above Singapore's blue southern harbor shore, the view is clear enough.

Below lie a Soviet "oceanographic research" vessel, two large Soviet freighters, with a smaller Vietnamese ship from Haiphong tied next to one.

More than a thousand Soviet commercial vessels visit Singapore each year, although openly military ships are prohibited.

Soviet fishing "trawlers" with large radar antennae that are believed to have intelligence purposes dock at two joint-venture Soviet fish factories. And more than 40 percent of the work at Singapore's large Keppel shipyard is on Soviet vessels.

Meanwhile on the northern side of the island at Sembawang shipyard, American warships such as the carrier Coral Sea are serviced on their runs from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Soviet vessels are kept out of this northern area bordering Malaysia. But antennae on the Soviet trawlers and the research equipment on Soviet "oceanographic vessels" are believed to be at least partly designed to monitor to Sembawang.

Despite its strong suspicions of growing Soviet strength, Singapore has so far stuck to its policy of earning valuable business through a Soviet commercial presence. But there is speculation among diplomatic circles that in the aftermath of Afghanistan, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew may rethink this policy.


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