Asian businesses can't ignore U.S. Prosperity: After years of insisting that America had waned in economic power, leading Asian executives are coming to realize the central role Washington has in global trade.


MANILA, Philippines -- Anyone wondering why Asian business leaders showed such intense interest in the inner workings of the American political system this fall -- and such eagerness to contribute to both Democrats and Republicans -- could find the answer last week in the ballrooms of the Shangri-la Hotel here.

In the days leading up to President Clinton's arrival yesterday along with the leaders of 17 other Pacific Rim nations, the region's billionaires and bankers, its industrial planners and its real estate investors poured into this city to assess how a second Clinton administration will affect billions of dollars worth of new investments.

There was, of course, the usual heavy dose of cliches about doing business in the global village. But it was clear that many of the villagers are more nervous about Washington's increasingly central role in setting -- or vetoing -- the rules of global trade.

After years of insisting that America is a diminished world economic power, Asia's most powerful executives have concluded that decisions made in Washington are more important to their prosperity than ever.

So while Clinton was scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef, Acting U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky was besieged with questions about the conditions under which America would let China join the World Trade Organization -- an issue little discussed in America but one on which fortunes could made or lost here.

When Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor spoke yesterday about the emergence of a "Clinton Doctrine" -- "not mutually assured destruction and a policy of containment but mutually assured prosperity and a policy of engagement" -- clusters of Asian executives debated whether these were code words for more pressure to open markets.

Business executives around the world have always had a close interest in Washington, of course, since the United States remains the world's biggest and richest market. But as the controversy over foreign campaign contributions so vividly demonstrated, that interest has begun to take on a new form.

As U.S. foreign policy increasingly intrudes on how other nations organize their domestic economies -- insisting, for example, that Indonesia change the way it treats factory workers, that Singapore let foreigners compete to provide telephone service and that China agree to a "road map" of market openings -- foreign executives say they feel compelled to make themselves heard from Capitol Hill to the White House.

"You see this phenomenon all over Southeast Asia these days, and it reminds me of the political awakening of the Japanese 30 years ago," said Thomas Hubbard, the U.S. ambassador to the (( Philippines.

"There is this sudden awareness that every large company has to deal with the way Washington works, and not just the executive branch," he said. "There is a genuine rise of interest, and that's largely a good thing."

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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