The Pacific Rim takes over the preoccupations of a domestic-minded administration this week when the 15-nation, four-year-old Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization meets in Seattle to decide, among other things, what it wants to grow up to be.
Trade barriers will be the focus when trade and foreign ministers meet Wednesday and Thursday. No one should expect decisive agreements on such matters as the climate for foreign investment or import barriers. But Japan might bring some concessions and the movement toward freer trade will be advanced or impeded.
As the conference opens, the other countries are eyeing the vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on the North American Free Trade Agreement. It will tell them whether the host country is an inward- or outward-looking giant. Mexico, not a member of APEC, has applied to join, as have Chile and Papua-New Guinea. Other nations are thinking about it, too.
Current APEC members provide half of U.S. foreign trade and most of the world's economic growth. Among the questions facing them is which European institution APEC should try to replicate for the 21st century. So far, APEC is a loose coffee club. The next stage would probably establish a statistic-gathering secretariat.
But the biggest interest is in the summit of heads of state or government (Malaysia is boycotting) on Friday and Saturday. It will be the first stage to spotlight together such new and untested world leaders as President Jiang Zemin of China, Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa of Japan, President Kim Young Sam of South Korea, President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines, Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada and -- biggest question mark of all -- President Bill Clinton of the United States. Bilateral exchanges will follow.
It is make-or-break time for improving U.S.-Japanese relations through greater imports by Japan, and for linking U.S.-China trade status to China's weapons export policies. Asian nations want to find out if the U.S. is withdrawing militarily from East Asia, and mostly hope it isn't.
To add to the fascination, Taiwan and Hong Kong are sending only lower-level officials, to appease China. As a result, the forum will put these three Chinas in the same room, to discuss cooperation, for the first time. Since they already do cooperate economically -- Taiwanese private capital is pouring through Hong Kong into China and Chinese private capital is oozing out -- their nonspeaking governments had better learn how to coordinate policies.
Mr. Clinton's own world view to date is limited and Eurocentric. Yet success of his domestic program depends on trade-driven prosperity in which the countries of the Pacific Rim loom larger each year. Like so many young Americans (and a fictional Sun feature writer in a recent hit movie), Mr. Clinton is flying to Seattle to find his future.