Clinton Turns to Asia



Last week the world watched with amazement the collapse of U.S. -- policy on Bosnia and the failure of American leadership in Europe. This week we will see if the Clinton administration can do any better in Asia, where the president must deal with two matters that will have important consequences.

Tomorrow the ranking U.S. official on nuclear non-proliferation, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci, will meet in New York with North Korea's first vice minister of foreign affairs.

Washington will try to persuade North Korea to continue to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to permit the treaty's required inspections of its nuclear facilities, and to sign a separate, bilateral accord with South Korea barring the enrichment of fissile material required for making nuclear weapons.

Already, the Clinton administration has offered significant concessions to the Stalinist-style regime that rules the North.

The first concession is the meeting itself -- a high level, bilateral meeting with the United States that North Korea has long desired. In exchange for North Korea's continued membership in the non-proliferation treaty, the United States also is offering three pledges: that North Korea will not be attacked with U.S. nuclear weapons; that the major annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises will be discontinued, and that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will be permitted to simultaneously inspect nuclear installations in South Korea and JTC North Korea.

The odds for success in this U.S. effort are not good, but the stakes are high. A decision by North Korea to withdraw from the non-proliferation regime will probably trigger a nuclear arms race in the North Pacific involving South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Even if South Korea declines to play nuclear catch-up with the North, the development of nuclear arms by North Korea will put an additional strain on South Korea's new democratic institutions by reinforcing the military dimension of the country's political culture and political life.

Asia specialist Chalmers Johnson writes in the forthcoming issue of The National Interest that a real or imagined nuclear threat to South Korea damages it because it ''keeps Cold War bureaucracies working a little longer'' and reinforces those who would like to keep American ground troops in Korea at a time that Mr. Johnson believes they should be withdrawn ''in a small belated gesture toward the consolidation of civilian rule in Seoul.''

Current indications in Washington are that the Clinton administration would like nothing better than a good reason for withdrawing U.S. troops from Korea. Anonymous State Department officials have recently emphasized the administration's determination to reduce U.S. commitments abroad and give higher priority to international economic concerns.

But the more eager Washington is to disengage from world leadership the less chance it will have of influencing countries like North Korea. Why should North Korea (or anyone else) forgo developing nuclear weapons in exchange for U.S. disengagement, if U.S. disengagement is coming anyway?

If the Clinton administration really means to ''make our economic interests paramount'' and forgo international leadership of other kinds, then it will not care much about North Korea's nuclear capacity or South Korea's democratization.

If President Clinton supports U.S. disengagement then we can easily understand his decision to continue China's most-favored-nation trade status. This is so even though the administration understands it will have trouble with Congress if the treatment of China seems too lenient, and trouble with the American business community as well as China if the policy seems too tough.

The case in favor of keeping China's trade status on roughly the current terms is economic. China is the fastest-growing economy in the world and the fastest-growing U.S. market. Last year, the United States sold $7.5 billion of American products to China, and sales are expected to increase by at least 20 percent this year.

The China market has become vital to the aerospace, telecommunications and computer industries. One spokesman for U.S. industry estimates that withdrawing trade would cost the U.S. economy at least 150,000 jobs, and $8 billion in lost exports.

The case against extending most-favored-nation treatment is moral and political. China holds political prisoners and violates their human rights. It habitually denies free speech, press and assembly. It represses and forces transfer of populations in Tibet. It exports goods made by slave labor. It violates intellectual property rights, and retains non-tariff barriers to U.S. imports. It transfers to third parties such as Syria, Pakistan and Iran sensitive U.S. technology in violation of solemn agreements not to do so.

But the Clinton administration makes foreign policy by the campaign slogan: ''It's the economy, stupid.''

To take the edge off this materialistic standard, the administration's most sophisticated members will doubtless make the additional argument that continuing trade with China at current levels will permit the Chinese economy to grow and prosper. And they will say that Taiwan and Korea have demonstrated that economic growth leads to political democracy and that therefore to build democracy and encourage respect for human rights we should continue our booming trade with China.

And no one will be able to prove definitively that they are wrong.

Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.

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