Courtesy Reuters

During his July trip to Asia, President Clinton went further than any of his predecessors in pledging America's help to create "a new Pacific community." He underscored this by proposing an informal summit conference with leaders of the other 14 members of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization (APEC); hence the upgrading of APEC's minister-level meeting in late November in Seattle. While promising support for regional security and democratization, Clinton made clear that the summit's topics would be largely economic. "Our nation," he said, "is ready to be a full partner in Asian growth."

The statement may prove to be a historic one. Few have any doubts left about the continuing expansion of the Asia-Pacific economies and their importance to the United States. More than 40 percent of American trade is with the Pacific region, and this figure shows every sign of increasing. By the year 2000 trade and investment flows across the Pacific will be double the transatlantic volume. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the American consumer was the engine of growth that fueled various East Asian "miracles." In the future, the big businesses and new middle-class consumers of the region offer the best possible chance for an increase in U.S. exports-both trade and investment-as well as mutually profitable exchanges of technology, communications and education. But recently strong negative perceptions-driven by growing American protectionism, the overselling of NAFTA as an exclusive North American trade "bloc," suspicion of great power hegemony among the ASEAN countries and resurgent nationalism in both China and Japan-have turned many Asians to thinking of the United States less as a partner and more as a threat.

The United States itself has contributed to the confusion. While praising Pacific economic development, promising a continued security presence and predicting a rosy cross-oceanic future, the United States has neglected to develop a strong government infrastructure worthy of this goal. Nor have business and nongovernmental organizations adjusted to the fact that the economic and cultural scheme of things in the Asia-Pacific world-a kaleidoscopic mix of new "developmental" capitalism and old Confucian tradition-is quite different from the more familiar atmosphere of American relations with Europe. Nonetheless, as Asia-Pacific peoples prosper, a growing middle class presses for more democratic freedoms. Old-fashioned Asian authoritarians continue to send their youth to study at U.S. universities. And a pervasive pop culture throughout the Asia-Pacific region betrays American, rather than European, origins.

The active participation of the United States is vital to the continued growth and peace of the Pacific Basin. Despite Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad's recurrent suggestions of yen-dominated Asian trade blocs, few Asians (the Japanese included) seriously contemplate an all-Asian trade bloc that would recreate the hegemonic East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of World War II. But the United States needs a working organization-if not a Pacific community-to make its participation effective.

APEC'S WEAKESS

APEC is small, obscure and undermanned; with an annual budget of $2 million, a European Economic Community it is not. This is a purely consultative forum, not a negotiating body-although in East Asia consultation is often more important than negotiation. Nonetheless, almost all of the Asian APEC delegations can count on heavy government support. APEC was formed in 1989 in recognition of the increasing integration of trade and investment in the burgeoning Pacific Basin. Its small secretariat in Singapore is paid for principally by Singapore's government. Although it is run by public officials, businessmen and technical specialists from the private sector are encouraged to attend some meetings. This reflects the close links between business and the government bureaucracy in most Asia-Pacific countries.

APEC's original membership was twelve countries: Australia, Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand and the United States, plus the ASEAN powers, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The three Chinas were quickly added: the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (known officially as Chinese Taipei to soothe Beijing's political sensibilities). While the APEC charter calls for high-level ministerial meetings once a year, its principal work has been done by groups dealing with specific issues like trade liberalization, energy, investment regulations, technology transfer and telecommunications.

The resources that the U.S. government has thus far devoted to APEC have been minimal. At a time when more than $50 million annually is appropriated for the European-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and $70 million for the Organization of American States, APEC-the only organization approaching economic policy for Asia (especially northeast Asia) in a comprehensive way-is allocated a mere $382,000.ffi The U.S. liaison group to APEC has some good people at the working level. Still, it badly needs continuing high-visibility support in Washington.

Nonetheless, APEC has made some progress with its working groups; telecommunications is a notable example. Much of APEC's success has been due to the spadework done by a nongovernmental sister organization, the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council. PECC was founded in 1980 on the initiative of Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Japan's Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira as a forum for countries in the Pacific Basin to exchange ideas on investment regulation, trade, technology, intellectual property rights, nontariff barriers and similar problems.

Now encompassing 20 national delegations, including China, Russia, ASEAN and three newly admitted Latin American countries, Mexico, Chile and Peru, PECC is a tripartite group, comprised of people from government, business and academic life. PECC has accomplished a great deal of work through its network of multilateral study groups. With some government support-especially in the case of the Asian members-these groups, like those of APEC, deal with specifics like telecommunications, aviation, minerals and energy. PECC is the only nongovernmental organization with an official observer seat in APEC. If APEC develops into more of a negotiating, policy-making group, PECC would probably represent the business and academic communities, serving as a bellwether, tester and project proposer for the official-level APEC. Between PECC and APEC, some 40 specialized regional meetings are held each year. In the process, new ways of institutional management and problem-solving have been developed.

PACIFIC DISCORD

Beneath the surface harmony, however, lie numerous areas of discord. NAFTA is a good example. The proposed agreement has been attacked by Asians as just another trade bloc, threatening protectionism like the European Economic Community. Fears that the western Pacific might have to "go it alone" have heightened. Partly in response to such trends, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has established its own ASEAN free trade agreement.

The American tendency to focus on bilateral, confrontational negotiations has impelled many politicians in China and Japan to respond in kind. In addition, U.S. disputes with Japan and other Asian nations about the nature and extent of government influence on private sector decisions and markets have been magnified by differences in such areas as human rights, labor law, environmental control and the pursuit of democracy.

ASEAN leaders, for example, feel that the American emphasis on environmental protection places undue burdens on developing countries. On issues of civil liberties and democratic participation, most Asian statesmen will admit that their forms of democracy are far from perfect, but they resist being judged by American standards of individualism. They particularly resent the public pressure tactics used by the United States to complain about anti-democratic practices.

In Singapore, for example, visitors are frequently told that the local "Big Brother" type of government and a submissive electorate are preferable to an intellectual, moral and cultural cave of winds, which is how Asians perceive the United States. U.S. economic policy, they argue, is badly hampered by unruly social and political pressure groups.

Bilateral disputes, particularly those involving the Japanese, tend to be like formal duels, and the stakes are often loudly exaggerated. The alternative-multilateral negotiations-usually requires an institutional base such as the GATT. Until recently, Asia-Pacific countries have not seriously contemplated the benefits of a multilateral economic institution outside the GATT. Lately, given GATT's problems, there has been more discussion of building Asia-Pacific economic institutions that can carry the flag for "open regionalism."

Given the huge stakes involved on both sides of the Pacific, it is reasonable to hope that a strengthened APEC could address more comprehensively the substantive issues of trade, technology and economics. The United States is no longer the growth engine it was in the go-go 1980s. Up to now Japan has refused to take up the slack, except insofar as it operates as a kind of "headquarters country," farming out various work projects to other East Asian countries. This is an arrangement, however, with which other Asians will not long be contented. Problems and discontents of this sort cannot be resolved at one or two meetings. They will require time and a great deal of patience in working toward their solution.

Americans can no longer depend, as they once did, on economic weight in bilateral relationships and a strong forward military presence to carry the day for us in the Pacific. The Asia-Pacific region-with power centers in Japan, China and ASEAN, and strong economic influences from Korea and the Chinese coastal regions-is evolving into a balance-of-power situation, one that needs an American presence for stability.

SEATTLE SUMMITRY

What then can the United States reasonably expect from the coming summit in Seattle? And what can the Clinton administration say and do to put meaning in the APEC summit? A few steps might be suggested:

Strengthen APEC. The United States should propose strengthening and enlarging the permanent APEC secretariat. Without offending sovereignty-conscious Asians, the United States should suggest that APEC expand its scope to become ultimately a decision-making body.

Reduce pressure for trade blocs. The United States should restate its commitment to open regionalism as a foundation of trade policy. It should stress the need to continue multilateral discussions and work for solutions to trade and investment problems while coupling them with a more positive approach toward economic development. It should be emphasized that NAFTA is not designed as a threat but as just another step in the U.S. policy of open regionalism. Ties between Mexico and the United States are already strong. NAFTA's ultimate importance lies in becoming part of an ongoing network of transpacific relationships. To underline this point, however, the United States is right to urge that Mexico be admitted to APEC.

Temper rhetoric on human rights. Going beyond APEC, the United States should continue its support for democracy and human rights, with an emphasis on setting these goals in a long-term context. It is often counterproductive to seek expansion of human rights in other countries by publicly telling governments that they are bad. (Many of them know this already.) Furthermore, the tide of events in the region is running toward more democracy.

The Republic of Korea is a classic case in point. Chun Doo Hwan's Kwangju massacre in 1980 was as bad as Deng Xiaoping's Tiananmen massacre in 1989. And the deed was done by an avowedly pro-American government. (There were notably slight protests from Washington at the time.) Nonetheless, gathering resentment at government oppression and the concurrent development of an affluent middle class has turned South Korea into a strong working democracy. Similarly strong currents are moving in favor of democracy throughout almost all the East Asian countries (with the notable exception of North Korea), and it is doubtful that China's communist security mechanism can continue its oppression indefinitely. Currents are running there, too.

Cultivate goodwill. The APEC Education Forum has made a good beginning at regional cooperation in this field. Exchange programs for students and professionals, especially in Southeast Asia, work and should be expanded. There is living evidence in the form of thousands of Asian students who have returned from the United States with a view of the world quite different from the one they started with. Bringing delegations of Chinese lawyers and jurists to the United States to visit their American counterparts, for example, is probably a more effective, if long-term, way of strengthening the rule of law in China than merely denouncing extralegal abuses from afar.

CULTURE IS NOT DESTINY

There are no insurmountable barriers toward building what President Clinton calls "the new Pacific community." It is time to lay to rest the tired argument that the great disparities of culture, tradition, race and religion among the Pacific nations make any close form of cooperation impossible-in contrast, it is said, to the relatively homogeneous nations of Europe. (Not many examples of cultural unity are on display in Europe these days.)

People are profoundly influenced by the cultures, religions and traditions that they have inherited-and this is true nowhere more than in East Asia. But people are also influenced by invention, modern communications, popular culture and the lifestyles of others. All of these, thanks to modern technology, can now be exported and imported at lightning speed. Asian "tradition" and "culture" are not set in concrete. The presumed cultural gravity of an imaginary East is no more real than the concept of the imaginary West of the Cold War. The Japanese have been at home with Western culture for the last century, as have great numbers of the Chinese. Just as the West carries ancient cultural baggage of Eastern origin, the Asia-Pacific region already carries much from the West. Even among the 180 million people of Indonesia, who embody vastly disparate combinations of race and culture, the modern education and politics of their country enforce a kind of modern cultural unity. Or look at the case of Korea. First a Buddhist, then a Confucian society, the Koreans kept strong influences of both and added a heavy measure of Christianity. (More than 25 percent of Korea's believers are Christians, and very fervent ones at that.) Moreover, given that Korea's secular and technological education has been based largely on American models, it is hard to classify it as part of a mysterious "East."

"Civilizations," Fernand Braudel wrote some years ago, "have their feet on the ground." That is to say, people in any civilization are apt to be influenced as much by current trends in business, trade, and technology as they are by venerable beliefs and traditions. There are powerful American influences at work in this new Pacific community. There are also powerful Japanese, Chinese and Korean influences, as well as growing social and cultural contributions from Southeast Asia. (Indonesia, in particular, will have a lot to say in the future.) At this point in history, a window of opportunity exists for the United States to play a far more constructive role in the development and prosperity of this community than it has before. It is a role for which U.S. history, economics and pluralist political philosophy have amply prepared the nation. It is time to start playing it out.