Defeat may aid Clinton on Asia trip

November 11, 1994|By Christian Science Monitor

TOKYO -- President Clinton, as he heads to Asia today for a multilateral summit, will probably be very glad to get out of the United States for a few days.

But his party's defeat in Tuesday's midterm elections may help him get what he wants from the Asian leaders he will meet next week. In navigating the sensitive waters of Asian diplomacy, humility can only help.

Mr. Clinton will participate in a Nov. 15 summit of leaders of 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region at the Indonesian resort town of Bogor near the capital, Jakarta. He will urge them to accept a program of market liberalization, which could make it the most open area for trade and investment in the world.

The occasion is the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. APEC includes nations on both sides of the Pacific. More divides these countries than water, however: There are vast differences in culture, political systems, and levels of economic development.

En route to the meeting, the president will stop off in the Philippines for a day for talks with that country's leaders.

APEC was formed as a loose, consultative body in 1989 and had its first summit meeting last year in Seattle. Now the United States is backing a plan by an APEC advisory group to implement a free-trade timetable that would require the countries to eliminate tariffs, ease rules on foreign investment, and harmonize standards by 2020, or even sooner.

This is the sort of "just-do-it" U.S. approach that traditionally irritates many Asians. The key word in this part of the world in matters of multilateral diplomacy is "gradual."

But there are several reasons why the APEC leaders may go along with the proposed free-trade timetable.

One is that the United States seems less aggressive than it did last year. Mr. Clinton's decision to eliminate the link between human rights and U.S. trade with China was applauded by many Asians. And Asians watched with satisfaction as the United States climbed down from its tough, "results-oriented" rhetoric in dealing with Japan.

Aside from the Nov. 15 summit, leaders and ministers from the participating countries will hold bilateral meetings that may stray from the economic issues at hand.

Mr. Clinton is expected to raise human rights concerns with Indonesia's President Suharto, even though the topic is especially sensitive. Asian officials have repeatedly accused the United States of using the issue to win trade concessions.

In recent months the government has closed down publications critical of the regime,and this week a court sentenced the leader of the country's largest independent labor union to three years in prison for allegedly instigating a riot in April.

Last year's APEC summit was unusually relaxed for a large meeting of heads of government, which tend to be scripted affairs planned out by bureaucrats.

Mr. Clinton stressed informality at the Seattle meeting, and Bogor promises to be a similarly casual and secluded setting.

This context is appropriate to the region, says Godwin Chu, an expert on Asian culture and communications at Honolulu's East-West Center. In many countries in Asia, leaders have traditionally resolved problems alone, behind closed doors.

"Whether this formula will create a rapport between Clinton [and other leaders], I don't know," says Mr. Chu.

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