Courtesy Reuters

The Rising Pacific

President Clinton and most Asian leaders in government and business agree on one thing: the revitalization of the American economy is far and away the most important priority in U.S.-Asia/Pacific relations. But as the president begins to put together his economic plan for America, he faces several tough foreign policy challenges in the region. He inherits a sense of declining U.S. importance in Asian eyes and yet, perhaps ironically, a continuing Asian desire for a strong U.S. role and presence. He does not inherit a coherent Asia policy, but rather a series of strained bilateral relationships with several countries, especially Japan and China. To top it off some prominent Asians have already concluded that President Clinton is bent on building trade walls, bringing home the troops and lecturing about human rights. Instead of grand strategies what is needed from the Clinton administration is a fresh mix of initiatives--some that address Asia-wide concerns and others that focus on specific Asian countries. Emphasis on long-term results, rather than quick fixes, will contribute not only to Pacific stability, but also to Clinton's image as a global statesman.

In this respect the president confronts three overarching Pacific-wide challenges: regional and global trade policies, post-Cold War security issues, and U.S. diplomatic structure and style.

Trade Issues. Over the last fifteen years Asia has surpassed Europe as America's most important overseas trading region; some estimates indicate that Pacific trade will double the volume of Atlantic trade by the year 2000. Last year east and southeast Asia absorbed one-third of the total $422 billion in U.S. exports. And economic growth rates are world business news as newly industrialized economies (NIE) status spreads across Asia-Japan in the 1960s; South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore in the 1970s and early 1980s; Thailand and Malaysia in the late 1980s; southern China in the early 1990s; and many analysts put Vietnam, Indonesia and possibly the Philippines in that category by the late 1990s. [1]

Against this vibrant Asian economic backdrop the United States has had a vexing time working out effective trade strategies. Reports of trade imbalances arouse widespread fears akin to biopsy reports on cancer patients. The Far Eastern Economic Review projects that the 1992 trade numbers will show two huge Asian surpluses with the United States--$50 billion held by Japan and $15 billion held by China.

Trade tensions have become the lead weight dragging on U.S.-Asia relations with powerful domestic lobbies pressuring leaders on both sides of the Pacific. In this troubling area Clinton will have to weigh economic imperatives and political realities; he may choose to combine two approaches drawn from recent history. The first is to maintain bilateral trade toughness. A firm approach toward trade has sometimes borne real fruit. [2] Among the well-worn devices will surely be "301 Actions" (unilateral U.S. trade limits on commodity imports in retaliation for reported trade violations from particular countries) and possibly new Structural Impediments Initiative talks (a broad review of structural issues affecting U.S.-Japan economic relations that might be applied to other U.S.-Asian relationships).

A second approach may emanate from the newly formed National Economic Council. Such an institution might propose that the United States take the offensive, abroad as well as at home, perhaps urging some variant of an industrial policy to bolster areas of competitiveness. If so, President Clinton might put trade statistics into a new framework, one that properly notes the United States must shoulder part of the blame for imbalances and that the U.S. surplus with many countries in service industry trade should be part of its overall calculation. In this scenario President Clinton could argue that one must take a longer-range view--emphasizing product competitiveness and marketing, closer government/business communication, and multinational and global targets rather than solely bilateral goals. In short President Clinton could offer a U.S. strategy that adapts certain highly successful elements of leading Asian economies to suit American needs.

By looking across the Pacific through new glasses the Clinton administration might open American eyes to one of the most important economic stories--the economic congealing of the Asia/Pacific region. Many have marvelled at the takeoff of individual Asian countries, but fewer Americans have observed the flow of products, services, labor and capital within Asia itself. The countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)--Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand--have soaked up massive amounts of Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and Hong Kong investment. "Greater China" (as some call the rapid integration of south China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) rests on a dynamic network of Chinese entrepreneurs who manage amounts in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And South Korea has shown that imaginative diplomacy can also be good business as it has opened up extensive ties with earlier adversaries, the former Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.).

The United States is becoming a relatively smaller player in intra-Asian trade and investment. Only a huge push involving the joint initiatives of business and government is likely to reverse a decade-long trend of American interests being eclipsed in the lucrative Asian marketplaces. Now is the time to substantially increase U.S. exports and investments, while America still remains a major market for most southeast Asian countries.

In recent years the U.S. government and private sector gave greater attention to European and American economic regionalism than to Pacific integration. This imbalance did not escape the notice of some Asian leaders who see a fearful symmetry in the emergence of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the European Community at precisely the same time that the global General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade system seems most under attack. U.S. support for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) has been an important counterweight; the Clinton administration will need to do more to reassure Asian governments that its initiatives, including support for NAFTA, are not aimed at promoting exclusivist trade blocs. Unless the United States puts forward convincing arguments, backed by more direct attention, schemes such as Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mahathir's East Asian Economic Caucus--a grouping that pointedly omits the United States--may prompt serious attention. Ultimately the best hope for Asia/Pacific economic relations rests in a successful conclusion to the Uruguay Round of GATT and continuing efforts to broaden the scope of multilateral liberalization of trade and investment.

Security Issues. In November 1992, as the U.S. fleet steamed out of Subic Bay in compliance with the decision of the Philippine Senate not to extend the bases' agreement, a century-long era of U.S. military presence came to an end. To some the departure from the Philippines symbolized the waning of U.S. military commitments in the Pacific that had been a staple of the Cold War. Nevertheless, even after the withdrawal from the Philippines, the United States still has military alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, and deploys over 100,000 military personnel in Asia, most of them in South Korea and Japan. There is little doubt that those numbers will decline in the years ahead, partly because of planned cutbacks and partly out of continued pressures at budget-balancing. The United States will be moving toward a sea-and-air-based posture for much of its residual presence in the Pacific, rather than the land-based deployments that characterized the Cold War decades.

In the post-Cold War era it is folly to scan the world for a new hydra-headed enemy, but America must recognize that the current security environment is very new and subject to considerable uncertainties. Clearly the United States should remain vigilant to potential concerns--such as the recent buildup in Chinese naval and air strength--without exaggerating such developments into immediate threats. A more sensible approach acknowledges that, with the possible exception of tensions on the Korean peninsula, direct threats to U.S. interests in the Asia/Pacific arena have declined substantially since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Most Asian leaders are still hopeful that the United States will retain a significant Pacific military presence. Most do not dwell on the danger of a rising malevolent power (though many privately express long-term worries about Japan, China, a united Korea and eventually--again--Russia). And most do not foresee an imminent crisis (though they fret about ongoing tensions in the Korean peninsula, renewed conflict in Cambodia, and saber-rattling over the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea). Instead what concerns them most is the long history of instability in the Pacific; they point out that security vacuums tend to tempt tyrants or to promote crises. Surely, they argue wishfully, the United States will remember its own history--that its military problems in Asia came not only from excessive over-involvement (as in Vietnam), but also from dangerous inattention (as in the years leading to World War II).

President Clinton will want to make security plans in full consultation with allies and friends in the region. Reaffirmation of alliance relationships will probably also be a high priority--especially with Japan, which remains the key U.S. partner in the region, and with South Korea, whose security is still tied to the joint U.S.-South Korean trip wire against adventurism from North Korea.

The United States will also wish to maintain its support for U.N. peacekeeping efforts in Asia and the rest of the world. It does seem premature, however, to move toward a Pacific-wide security mechanism, such as a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Asia (after the European CSCE). Simply put, Asia lacks the cohesiveness, in history or geography, of Europe. Although most Asian security issues seem well addressed by existing bilateral mechanisms, this multilateral idea should be reviewed at future APEC conferences or possibly the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations (G-7) summit meetings.

Diplomacy and Style. If Clinton wishes to distinguish himself in Asia, he would be well advised to devote as much time to how diplomacy is conducted as he does to what is actually accomplished.

Many Asian leaders privately fault some of their American counterparts for exhibiting an insufferable arrogance, as if all substantive geopolitical decisions were still made in Washington and all significant economic deals were still consummated on Wall Street. They further complain that top-level Americans give scant attention to Asia, making a quick decision or taking a quick trip, then running off to more important business elsewhere.

The year 1992 began with a jolting illustration of the American decline in Asian eyes. Whatever the diplomatic accomplishments of President Bush's trip across the Pacific in January--and there were some, including the now-forgotten Tokyo declaration--it was a public relations disaster. Presumably to show toughness in trade negotiations, President Bush invited several American business leaders to accompany him, including Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, who then eclipsed the president by lambasting his Japanese counterparts and the Japanese government for unfair trade practices.

President Clinton has a unique opportunity to change the negative imagery. Some Asian leaders who have watched Clinton on television have been impressed by his intellect, directness and ability to connect. They hope that he can find the time, perhaps around the G-7 summit in Tokyo in July 1993, to take a short trip through the region for an initial round of personal diplomacy. A presidential style that emphasizes consultation and listening would be deeply refreshing to leaders across the Pacific. That style might also be reinforced by assigning someone who is Asia-knowledgeable direct, visible access to the Oval Office, thus conveying the fact that Washington is attentive on a regular basis. Virtually everyone hopes the Clinton administration will reinforce diplomatic professionalism, making ambassadorial appointments from the Foreign Service or selecting people with substantive knowledge and experience.

Many Asia specialists, on both sides of the Pacific, urge two significant shifts in how the U.S. government pursues its Asia policies. First, even though most business will still be conducted in traditional bilateral channels, more attention should be given to the impact of decisions on third parties. While multilateralism is given lip service, myopic bilateralism can still produce surprises, shocks and damages. Second, most of Asia feels that only a few countries, such as Japan and China, register on the U.S. diplomatic radar screen. Not surprisingly the sense of being snubbed prompts many to an instinctive, often unexpressed, anti-Americanism. Of course it is impossible to pursue a completely "equal opportunity" diplomacy, but the avoidance of insult should be a high priority.

U.S.-China Relations: Avoiding Collision

Unfortunately, but inexorably, China has worked its way up the policy ladder to the number one, short-term Asian issue confronting the incoming U.S. administration. During the campaign Clinton spoke sharply about China--envisioning "an America that will not coddle tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing"--a position he seemed to modify on November 19 when he noted that the Bush administration had achieved "more moderation" in Beijing's trade policies.

The searing impact of the Tiananmen Square massacre is still deeply felt in the United States while it has faded into memory elsewhere; most major countries have resumed normal to regular relations with Beijing (recent top-level visitors have included the emperor of Japan and the prime ministers of the United Kingdom, Japan and Italy). And throughout Asia--whether in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Bangkok or Singapore--one hears fervent hopes that the Clinton administration will not further undercut an already seriously weakened relationship. Almost everyone in Asia sees U.S.-China relations as a crucial factor underpinning stability and growth in the Pacific; no one forgets the frightful brinksmanship of the 1950s and 1960s when Washington and Beijing stood at odds.

In recent years some have suggested China might follow "an Asian form of development," in which economic takeoff coexists with more authoritarian governance, eventually prompting more pluralistic political systems (as seen most clearly in the cases of South Korea and Taiwan). The Chinese economy, nurturing a fast-growing private sector while still keeping some centralized planning, has made stunning strides in the early 1990s with growth rates that matched the front-running NIEs. [3] Foreign trade has surged forward, not only giving rise to Greater China but also creating a commercial network that links China to all of east and southeast Asia and Europe, as well as to the United States. China's modernization, a dream of reformers for over a century, is well on the way to realization.

In sharp contrast to its positive economic news, China's politics have had their chilling side. In the aftermath of Tiananmen there was a wave of arrests, incarcerations and summary judgments in an inquisition-like atmosphere. Under much tougher outside scrutiny, China's seamier side has been exposed--political prisoners and alleged torture, weapons sales to the Middle East, and exports produced by prison labor (though there is now an agreement to curtail this practice).

In what direction is China heading? The 14th Party Congress, which ended in October, produced a ringing endorsement of widespread economic reform, yielding a politburo with a mix of hardliners and pragmatists. Yet as Barber Conable and David Lampton recently argued: "The post-Tiananmen economic reforms and the current acceleration of economic change will soon put serious political reform back on the agenda. The only issue is whether the elite gets out ahead of these demands or is forced to respond." [4] That is the central question as China ponders the succession to Deng Xiaoping, the still-dominant leader who is approaching ninety years of age. No one can forecast the outcome, but there are some specialists who express cautious optimism that more pragmatic Chinese figures--reformers who have proven records as municipal and provincial modernizers--may eventually play dominant roles, promoting both economic development and greater political openness. Nowhere on earth will the Clinton administration face more delicate and dicey choices than on China policy. On the one hand a deteriorating relationship would be a huge tragedy. America would lose the chance to remain engaged in China's modernization, to profit from the trade and investment, and to work jointly with China on serious mutual concerns in the Asia/Pacific region and beyond. For twenty years, since the famous meeting between President Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong in February 1972, the United States has labored to prevent the isolation of China, which might prompt Beijing's leaders to move again at cross purposes to American policy interests. On the other hand the United States does have serious human rights concerns about China, concerns that have already found forceful expression in Clinton's campaign rhetoric. Americans do not quickly forget bloody repression, especially when so vividly displayed on international television, and cannot be deaf to reports of serious abuses.

The problem, then, is to develop a policy that combines strategic, economic and human rights goals, one that produces long-term effects and avoids short-term deterioration. To achieve this goal it is imperative to remain engaged with China at high diplomatic levels and with significant trade and investment. Such involvement is essential not only for stability in the region, but also to address a wide array of concerns (including bilateral trade tensions as well as American and Chinese outlooks on potential hot spots like the Korean peninsula and Indochina). Although there is no way that outsiders can shape China's leadership changes, continued high-level involvement prepares Washington to deal actively with Beijing's future successor governments.

The U.S.-China relationship is dangerously frayed. Thus far Beijing has kept its irritations in check--reacting mildly, for instance, to Bush administration decisions in October 1992 to sell F-16s to Taiwan and to send a cabinet-level officer on a visit to Taipei. But 1993 could bring sharper words and stronger actions from China. Beijing's new toughness toward Governor Chris Patten's efforts to enhance the democratic structure in Hong Kong can also be read as an indirect message to the United States: China intends to play hardball.

Any effort to condition most-favored-nation trade status would seriously jeopardize the U.S.-China relationship and would prompt retaliation. MFN is, of course, a misnomer; the fact that it is extended to all but 12 countries around the world indicates that the term "favored" is hardly applicable. The loss of MFN standing would most hurt precisely those America seeks to help--China's rising modernizers. It would also cripple Hong Kong, whose economy is increasingly tied to China's and which is already deeply anxious about its future status under China's rule after 1997. Moreover the denial of MFN status to China would seriously impact Taiwan, whose trade and investment links with mainland China have expanded exponentially in recent years. In short most Chinese entrepreneurs in Asia, whether inside the P.R.C. or not, would be sharply hit by a negative MFN decision.

So what can be done to express U.S. concerns about human rights? The single most effective device would be direct high-level meetings in which the United States privately and forcefully makes its concerns known, not in some generalized fashion but around specific cases. Such a strategy would not only be clear-cut in dealing with current leaders, but would also assure more moderate rising leaders that the United States intends to stay engaged while keeping to its principles. Such private, tough-minded dialogues are also the place to raise related concerns--for instance, prompting China to stop jamming Voice of America transmissions and to permit prison inspections by the International Committee of the Red Cross. While evolving human rights tactics for China, it is imperative that the Clinton administration articulate a global human rights strategy so as to avoid double-standard diplomacy, treating some countries more harshly than others.

U.S.-Japan Relations: A Fresh Dialogue

The U.S.-Japan relationship is undeniably the most important bilateral linkage in the Pacific. A seriously weakened U.S.-Japan relationship, especially if combined with major erosion in U.S.-China ties, could turn back the clock in Asia by decades.

Many analysts correctly observe that U.S.-Japan ties run much deeper than Cold War antagonism to the Soviet Union. U.S.-Japan bilateral trade is the largest overseas commercial linkage in the world; the Tokyo-Washington alliance relationship has been the bedrock of Asian stability; both nations are deeply committed to democratic government, a free press and basic rights.

Despite these truisms, U.S.-Japan tensions run deep. Trade is the immediate problem and the Japanese, along with other key Asian trading partners (Korea and Taiwan), will be watching Washington warily. Such acrimony may, in fact, be the surface noise to deeper changes in the two economies. After several years of prolonged recession the U.S. economy appears to be on the way to recovery; that very fact may moderate the American sense of urgency in trade negotiations. And the Japanese economy, after years of remarkable domestic growth and global impact, has crashed into serious structural walls--a grossly overvalued capital market, an overpriced and moribund property market, a huge and sluggish banking system with extensive bad debts, and growing threats to the sacred system of lifetime employment. While most observers expect a Japanese economic comeback at some point in the 1990s, the short-term negotiating prospects may occur between a more vibrant United States and a more decrepit Japan.

Just as the U.S. and Japanese economies are in different cycles, so too both foreign policies now move in somewhat different directions. Japanese leaders have been sharply critical of America's China policy, for instance, suggesting that Washington's breast-beating on human rights issues threatens to isolate Beijing. More recently high-level Japanese delegations to China hold open the possibility that Tokyo and Beijing may find new affection in an era of Sino-American afflictions. Second, in early November 1992, after years of urging the United States to move more rapidly toward normalization with Hanoi, the Japanese took the jump on U.S. policy by resuming aid to Vietnam. Clearly Japan is now positioned, along with Taiwan and Hong Kong, to reap the early benefits from Vietnam's long-awaited integration into the Pacific economy.

Washington, which has long urged Japan to pursue more activist foreign policies, may find the more independent bent of such policies not entirely to its liking. That is one of the perils of obsessive bilateralism--one tends to miss the multilateral benefits that may come from a more broadly gauged, less strident policy.

In the U.S.-Japan relationship, perhaps more than anywhere else in the Asia/Pacific region, President Clinton will have an opportunity to engage in impressive personal diplomacy. In recent years the relationship has lost its sense of freshness, confidence and perhaps even trust. The unfortunate January 1992 encounter between President Bush and Japanese Premier Kiichi Miyazawa may have set the stage for much more successful Clinton/Miyazawa meetings in 1993. In the process the new American president would also be signaling Japanese leaders that he was bringing new vigor and vision to a tired relationship.

All of this presumes, of course, that President Clinton will combine firm talk on trade issues, leading to successful economic negotiations and agreements with a broader bilateral and multilateral agenda. Rampant Japan-bashing would simply turn back the clock, prompting a new round of America-bashing in the Tokyo press. A more productive approach might be to focus on regional and global environmental issues. The Clinton/Gore commitment to environmental protection is matched by some Japanese leaders who are proud of several domestic environmental initiatives (especially in reducing air pollution and enhancing energy efficiency) that they believe counterbalance Japan's negative international reputation (in violating bans on whaling, driftnet fishing, ivory and tropical timber imports). Clearly the United States and Japan provide the key--both as heavy resource consumers and also as capital rich societies--to future global environmental policies.

Korea's Metamorphosis

The divided Korean peninsula, the Cold War's most fearsome legacy to Asia, has undergone some remarkable transformations in recent years.

In December 1991 North and South Korea signed two dramatic agreements, promising reconciliation and also mutual weapons-facility inspections to create a nonnuclear peninsula. While progress toward implementing those agreements was slow to nil in 1992, hopes were raised in Korea and in the region. In 1992 North Korea agreed to five ad hoc inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency, easing some fears about the urgency of the problem, but not eradicating all suspicions about North Korean nuclear intentions or potential.

President Clinton has pledged to continue the potent U.S.-South Korean alliance and to maintain troops in South Korea as long as the threat remains. [5] President Roh Tae Woo hands his successor, Kim Young Sam, a country that has made enormous strides since 1988. Its economy, though buffeted by internal problems, is among the most important in the world. (South Korea is currently the seventh-largest trading partner of the United States.) Diplomatically Roh has surprised the world by opening full relations with Moscow (September 1990) and Beijing (August 1992), thus greatly increasing Seoul's global reputation and leverage while leaving Pyongyang even more isolated. Politically Roh has overseen the transition to a far more democratic society, breaking with a long tradition of authoritarian rule and military interference.

Unquestionably America's first loyalty is to South Korea, but should the United States also consider upgrading its ties wit the North? It is a question that will surely be reviewed by the incoming administration, although it is unlikely to prompt early decisive action. As president-elect, Clinton told President Roh that he would "coordinate" with Seoul on the issue of Pyongyang's nuclear capacities. Presuming progress on the nuclear issue, the United States should open a higher-level dialogue with North Korea as promised when Under Secretary of State Arnold Kanter met with a ranking North Korean official in January 1992. Although the North Koreans have complained about the United States "moving the goalposts," in considering steps toward normal relations, other issues must be addressed, including Korean War remains, renunciation of terrorism, North Korea's missile technology exports and human rights violations.

North Korea under Kim II Sung remains one of the world's most isolated, most unpredictable and most economically deprived societies in the world. If cautious movement toward normalization can help draw out the North, moderating its militancy and modernizing its economy, then the Clinton administration may wish to explore that approach over time.

Indochina and Southeast Asia: Noncrisis Dilemma

On October 23, 1992, President Bush announced that "today, finally, I am convinced we can begin writing the last chapter of the Vietnam War." He was speaking of new MIA data brought back from Hanoi by General John Vessey. The 2,265 U.S. servicemen listed as missing in action, still unaccounted for, remain the chief obstacle to lifting the U.S. trade embargo, permitting international lending, and eventually establishing normalized U.S.-Vietnam relations.

After these announcements Washington is feeling sharp pressures on the volatile Vietnam issue. Business community leaders and policy analysts are urging forthright action so as not to lose momentum to Japan and other countries. They note that Vietnamese authorities appear to be fully cooperating in addressing MIA/POW cases.

President Clinton, given his anti-Vietnam War history, may find it more difficult to make a convincing case to the families of U.S. servicemen. He has expressed his deep concern over the MIA issue. But he will also be hearing strong voices for normalization--from business and banking, from the media and from foreign governments--and those voices will grow louder over time.

In fact U.S.-Vietnam normalization is an issue where President Clinton may have to expend some political capital, making a move that will be sharply criticized in some quarters. Failing to move on normalization would surely leave the United States as odd-man-out in southeast Asia. Worse than the loss of trade and geopolitical stability, a failure to normalize would, in fact, perpetuate the deep divisions that prompted Clinton, and so many of his generation, to protest the war two decades ago. President Clinton has a chance to show that it is indeed time to end the Vietnam War.

Great hopes surrounded the other war-torn southeast Asian country, Cambodia, when on February 28, 1992, the U.N. Security Council approved a plan to govern the transition to elections under the supervision of the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia. Tragically, however, the Khmer Rouge has refused to cooperate with military cantonment or with access to its controlled areas. Khmer Rouge leaders charge that huge numbers of Vietnamese disguised as civilians remain in Cambodia and that the Hun Sen regime in Phnom Penh exercises total control over Cambodian life. At this point the long-awaited May 1993 elections run a considerable risk of including only the non-Khmer Rouge areas and parties. Nevertheless U.S. policy seems clear-cut: supporting the U.N. peacekeeping operations and upcoming elections, even without Khmer Rouge participation, and praying that Cambodia's terrible nightmare will indeed soon be over.

Elsewhere in southeast Asia the Clinton administration will face relatively more manageable issues. Thailand, after an early 1992 brutal episode of military repression, returned to the course of democracy under the courageous leadership of Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun and his successor, Chuan Leekpai. The Philippines also saw a somewhat peaceful passage of power from President Corazon Aquino to Fidel Ramos. Indonesian policies toward East Timor remain troublesome--as a consequence in 1992 Congress discontinued a military training program for Indonesia and threatened further economic retaliation.

Southeast Asia as a whole, particularly the six countries in ASEAN, raises a more subtle question for the Clinton team. In the post-Cold War ear, will ASEAN, once seen as a buttress against Indo-Chinese and Soviet communism, still attract substantial attention from U.S. policymakers? Together the ASEAN countries offer lucrative markets, low-cost talented labor and rich resources, precisely the mix that should attract an economically oriented administration.

ASEAN, in short, raises one of the most difficult problems confronting U.S. diplomacy. How does the United States deal sensitively with a region that poses no immediate crises? That is, in fact, precisely where the professionalism of the U.S. Foreign Service is most tested--in its ability to sustain sufficient attention, to prompt intelligent decisions, to muster appropriate resources in handling noncrisis situations. Treating headaches before they become migraine crises--that is a central challenge in the future of America's Asia policy.

The Peril of Moving Too Quickly

On balance then, the murky inheritance in U.S.-Asia relations may offer some silver linings. The biggest danger for the Clinton administration is that of moving too quickly, probably on China but possibly on Japan, thus losing widespread potential support in the Pacific rim countries. The challenge is to find a paced and balanced approach, giving appropriate close attention to human rights and trade issues, but also nurturing the overall stability and dynamism of the Pacific.

It is worth remembering that, after a half century in which the United States has been involved in tragic Asian land wars no less than three times, the Pacific has entered a fragile new era of relative peace. Remarkably, through Asian entrepreneurial skill and open access to the American market, Asia now houses the world's most impressive and most promising economies. And almost miraculously the powerful upsurge of middle classes has propelled several Asian societies toward more open, more democratic political systems.

If Americans forget this historical perspective and act primarily out of single-issue domestic passions, the United States will suffer a backslide in its relations with key players in Asia. If, on the other hand, America can fashion an appropriate mix of security, trade and human rights initiatives, based on genuine sensitivity to Asian views, conveyed by a vigorous and convincing new American president, then there will be a new U.S. Asia policy that may achieve not only substantive results but also renewed respect.

Footnotes

[1] U.S. policy in south Asia is beyond the scope of this essay.

[2] During 1992, for instance, such pressure prompted China to accept important agreements on market-access and intellectual property rights.

[3] Over the past 14 years real GNP in China has averaged 9% annual increases.

[4] Barber B. Conable, Jr., and David M. Lampton, "China: The Coming Power," Foreign Affairs, Winter 1992/93, pp. 141-42.

[5] Currently U.S. troop strength is 37,400, down from 43,000 a year ago.

  • Robert B. Oxnam, President Emeritus of The Asia Society, currently serves as Senior Adviser to the Bessemer Securities Corporation and Bessemer Trust Company and as Senior Research Associate at Columbia University's East Asian Institute.
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