The just concluded visit to China by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew symbolizes the gradually emerging relationship between China and noncommunist Southeast Asia.
That relationship is marked by limited political cooperation, cautiously expanding economic ties, and continued wariness over China's refusal to withdraw support of guerrilla movements in Southeast Asia.
Since the death of Mao Tse-tung, in late 1976, China-Southeast Asia relations on the whole have drawn closer. Visits such as that by Prime Minister Lee will help determine whether the move toward closer relations continues, slows down, or even reverses course.
The prime minister, on his second visit to China, has been speaking partly for Singapore and partly as a leading statesman in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
As an ASEAN leader (other members are Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines) he has been testing the prospects of future cooperation with China on the question of Cambodia.
Common opposition to Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia since early 1979 has brought China and ASEAN together. But now ASEAN states, including Singapore, are pushing for an early negotiated settlement of Cambodia. They also want China to deemphasize its backing of the Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia ruthlessly for four years, and support a noncommunist "third force" as well.
So far China remains wary of the ASEAN approach. It puts its major emphasis on "punishing" Vietnam by long-term backing of Khmer Rouge guerrillas in a costly war of attrition against Vietnam.
Prime Minister Lee said after talks with Chinese leaders that although China considered the Khmer Rouge the main anti-Vietnamese resistance force, it was prepared to accept and support noncommunist anti-Vietnamese resistance forces. Chinese leaders also said they were not seeking reestablishment of China's influence in Cambodia, Mr. Lee explained. But to what extent the prime minister had bridged the gap with China remained unclear.
Differences of opinion will have to be handled carefully if ASEAN unity is not to be disrupted.
Too big a breach with China could hurt Thailand, which needs the threat of Chinese military retaliation to help deter a Vietnamese attack on the Thai-Cambodian border. Yet moving too close to China could alienate Malaysia and Indonesia, which are wary of China and want to keep "doors open" to Vietnam.
Ironically, Prime Minister Lee represents a position that is both closest to and furthest from China.
In its vociferously outspoken anti-Soviet attitude, for instance, Singapore comes closer to China than any other ASEAN country. Yet Prime Minister Lee has declared Singapore will be at the last ASEAN state to establish diplomatic relations with China.
Singapore takes this position because it is ethnically predominantly Chinese. It wants to prove to its ASEAN neighbors that even though it is largely Chinese, its loyalties are to ASEAN, not to China.
If the Chinese were to indicate clearly that they will not support revolutionary groups (which are often ethnically Chinese) in Southeast Asia, the suspicious of countries like Malaysia and Indonesia would be greatly allayed.
But so far China has refused. That is one reason Malaysia and Indonesia retain some sympathy toward Vietnam -- and one reason Indonesia and Singapore do not normalize relations with China.
After talks with Chinese leaders, Prime Minister Lee said, "I sensed a distinct shift of nuances. The words, the tone, and the attitude all add up to leave a clear impression of a different, open position." But Mr. Lee added, the Chinese would not "abandon people whom they have instigated and incited to revolution."