On China, US Can't Speak for Asia

THE American reaction to events in China in recent weeks has been bitter disillusionment and indignation. Our strongest values - free speech, democracy, human rights - were trampled before our eyes. Some Asians shared this reaction; but more slid past the human rights issues to focus on their own national interests and security. Japan and Singapore were the only Asian-rim countries, together with Taiwan and Hong Kong, specifically to condemn the suppression. Japan added cautiously that it was not prepared to judge the ``rights and wrongs'' of the issues. Other Asians merely expressed ``regret'' or ducked all comment.

China, whether in a repressive or a reforming mode, is a giant around which, as Kipling said of Queen Victoria, Asians feel it is well to ``walk wide.'' Some Southeast Asians have reminded Americans that they had long warned that China remained unpredictable. They seem relieved that the United States may now retreat from its earlier over-attachment to China and urge the greater importance of a continuing strong US presence in the region.

They are unsure what China will do next. Some suggest that it may be increasingly involved with its own internal problems and less likely to take an active role on issues like Cambodia. Others caution that a politically unstable China could be a dangerous, adventurous, and threatening presence. Several hope to profit by international diversion of trade or investment from China to themselves.

All the Asian states, however, plan to continue ``business as usual'' with China. That means encouraging trade and cautious investment, downplaying open criticism of China, and continuing to develop official relationships.

South Koreans are mainly concerned that China not tilt more closely to North Korea and that their growing trade relations with China not be interrupted.

ASEAN countries are wary that China not renew old links with communist parties and insurgencies in their territories, begin again to express ``special interest'' in local citizens of Chinese origin, or roil the waters in Cambodia or over disputed islands in the South China Sea. They want China to balance Vietnam, but urgently hope for a quick settlement in Cambodia.

Japan doesn't want to jeopardize its $20 billion trade with China or the $10 billion in credits and assistance it has committed there over the last 13 years, and is eager that China not become an issue again in Japanese politics, or in Japan-US relations.

Hong Kong is alarmed over its future under Chinese rule after 1997. Its government and citizens are urgently debating what new commitments from China, assurances of emigration rights to the United Kingdom, or democratic measures in Hong Kong may help ease the uncertainties.

Beijing has sought to reassure all Asians that life will now go on as before, that China plans no changes in its policies that will rattle the region further. The Asians are likely to behave as though they accept these assurances and hope by doing so they may help make them a reality. This is in the interest of stability in the region, and in American interests.

The President and Secretary of State James Baker have shown they understand this well. But if congressional pressures were to push the President to reduce trade and technology transfers to Beijing, we should at least not insist that other Asians follow suit. If we suspend high-level meetings with the Chinese, let's understand why Asians may not. If public criticism of Beijing rises in the United States, let's accept the fact that others in Asia are unlikely to echo our tone.

As Washington contemplates its policy toward the region, and Secretary of State Baker looks ahead to his meeting in July in Brunei with key Asian foreign ministers, it is vital that a difference in China policy between the US and its Asian friends not become a source of friction.

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