Asia tries to get it together APEC summit: Clinton weakened for trade and currency talks.

November 24, 1997

THE MEETINGS of the 18-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum were meant to speed free trade throughout the Pacific Rim by 2020 and spread the Asian miracle. Instead, they are transfixed by the need to halt the Asian disaster, beginning with South Korea's reluctant appeal to the International Monetary Fund for $20 billion to shore up its currency and banks.

This was needed after the U.S. refused to join Japan in bailing out South Korea without imposing IMF discipline. Some Japanese analysts believe an IMF bailout of South Korea, following those of Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, must be closer to $100 billion. Helping concentrate the mind was the reported collapse of Yamaichi Securities, Japan's fourth biggest brokerage house. The region's banking crisis and economic slowdown have blown back at Asia's dominant economic power.

APEC had the foresight to pick a symbolically appropriate setting for the annual meetings. Vancouver is North America's latest great city, thanks to Asian investment. One-fourth of the metropolitan population of 1.8 million is Asian. Half the school children's first language is not English. Vancouver is Canada's gateway to Asia and vice versa. There is no slamming the gate now. Weakened Asian currencies mean lower prices for Asian goods here and higher prices for U.S. and Canadian exports to Asia, and help explain the jump in the U.S. trade deficit, which will get worse if Asian currencies do not revive.

President Clinton might have gone to the summit Monday and Tuesday as putative savior. Instead, Congress saw to it that he goes disarmed. By refusing to pass fast-track negotiating authority, it sends him powerless into the agenda-setting of trade negotiations for next year and the attempt to reach agreement on opening financial markets by next month. Commerce Secretary William Daley offers the rosy scenario that fast track is needed only to conclude a trade deal, not to begin one, but that is not reassuring. By adjourning without providing $3.5 billion for the IMF's Asian emergency, having held it hostage to the politics of abortion, Congress weakens Mr. Clinton's authority in the South Korean crisis.

The one piece of good news greeting APEC is that North Korea, South Korea, China and the U.S. will begin peace talks for the Korean War, which ended in armistice in 1953, in Geneva on Dec. 9. A hope for reduced tensions and reduced military expenditures in the Korean peninsula has to improve the confidence level of East Asia, where any good news is more than welcome this weekend.

Pub Date: 11/24/97

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