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Gorbachev's deal

KEEP your hand on your wallet, Mikhail Gorbachev has just offered a deal. And what a deal it is - from his point of view.

Give up the American bases in the Philippines, he's just told Washington, and the Soviets will give up their base in Vietnam.

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To the uninitiated and the naive, what could seem more reasonable? The United States gives up its military presence in Southeast Asia, and the Soviet Union would offer a quid pro quo. Some quid. Some quo.

The bases the US would give up are Clark and Subic, the biggest American military installations outside the US. Clark is a massive Air Force base, Subic a major naval installation. The bases provide support and resupply for US military operations throughout Southeast Asia, eastward into the Pacific, and westward to the Gulf. Without the bases, these operations would be hobbled. A critical role for the bases in the Philippines is protection of the oil flow from the Gulf to Japan.

By contrast, the base in Vietnam which the Soviets have offered to vacate is actually a US-built base, Cam Ranh Bay. It was constructed during the Vietnam war and left to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese upon US withdrawal from South Vietnam. Taken over by the Soviets, it has become an important base for Soviet warships, submarines, and long-range aircraft. While Cam Ranh Bay has enabled the Soviets to project new military force into Southeast Asia, it has nowhere near the importance for them that the bases in the Philippines have for the US.

Were the US denied the use of Clark and Subic, it would probably have to fall back to alternatives in the Pacific. The USSR could still operate its Far East fleet out of Vladivostok, and has also worked out port-of-call visits with North Korea.

The renewal of leases on the American bases is currently the subject of difficult negotiations between the Philippines and the US. Manila wants substantially more money for them. Beyond this, there is an anti-American element in the Philippines which does not want the bases there, whatever the Americans pay their government for them.

Contingency planning is under way for the abandonment of the bases, if negotiations lead to an impasse, and for the US to relocate them, albeit in a less satisfactory area. But whether those negotiations end in success or impasse, they should stand by themselves. The Soviet offer is a lopsided one which the US should disregard.

The offer, along with a number of other Asian initiatives advanced in a speech by Mr. Gorbachev last week, does make clear that he is advancing his plan to make the USSR a serious Asian power. For example, Gorbachev called for normalizing his country's relations with China. The Chinese have responded with some enthusiasm to this suggestion, but they made it clear they do not want to return to the intimate alliance of the 1950s between China and the USSR. Gorbachev also indicated his desire for better relations with Japan - a country he has been especially wooing. He held out the possibility of establishing relations with South Korea, even though the Soviets have long maintained a relationship with North Korea.

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A strategy that would make a friendlier neighbor of China, afford Moscow new leverage in such important countries as Japan and South Korea, enable the Soviet fleet to operate throughout Southeast Asian waters, yet cut back US influence in the area would certainly further the Soviets' aims in Asia.

Let the new American president beware. Gorbachev may seem friendlier and more conciliatory than some of his predecessors. But because the Soviets may be inching away from applying raw military power, it does not mean they will not try to achieve their goals by more sophisticated, canny diplomacy.

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