SEATTLE — AFTER setbacks in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti, President Clinton has a chance to put a brighter face on American foreign policy this week.
Meeting with Asian leaders in Seattle, Mr. Clinton hopes to set the stage for closer United States economic ties with the fast-growing economies of the Pacific Rim. The result eventually could be a free-trade zone much larger than the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). (Europeans note shift in US policy, Page 2.)
Therein lies a rub. Do Americans want a NAFTA writ even larger?
Selling the US-Canada-Mexico accord has been a harrowing experience for Clinton, and tomorrow's House of Representatives vote still hangs in the balance. The same public concerns that have dogged the North American trade deal are bound to resurface in any push for a much larger Pan-Pacific trade bloc.
Nicholas Lardy, a China expert at the University of Washington, says organized labor's opposition to NAFTA could be merely a warm-up for the battle over free trade in the Pacific.
Many Americans fear losing their jobs to Mexico's 90 million people. That worry may be multiplied when they look across the Pacific at China's population of 1 billion. But the concern goes beyond competition from cheap labor. Education and job skills have been rising fast in countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.
``There is no question that they are moving very fast industrially and technologically,'' says economic development expert Walt Rostow of the University of Texas. East Asia's economies have been growing at roughly twice the rate of Western nations. As this growth continues, ``We'll sell them more, and they'll sell us more,'' Mr. Rostow says.
US exports to Asia are in fact climbing steadily, supplying high-wage manufacturing jobs at a time when European markets are stagnant. Here in Washington State, for example, the Pacific represents a booming market for Boeing jets, Microsoft computer software, Kenworth trucks, and numerous other products made by local companies.
America runs huge trade deficits not only with Japan but also with China and Taiwan. US imports from China soared from $2.3 billion in 1982 (the last year when America had a trade surplus with China) to $25.7 billion last year.
Still, trimming the Asian trade gap is a crucial goal for the Clinton administration. US trade negotiators are exerting pressure in bilateral talks with Japan and China to open markets in various sectors.
With this week's meeting, the White House takes these efforts to the multilateral level, trying to build support for a long-term plan to bring down Asian trade barriers.
Clinton would like to see an existing 15-member organization, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), transformed into a body that actively promotes trade and investment liberalization in the region. The meeting this week represents an attempt by the president to boost the four-year-old group's stature - by inviting heads of government of APEC, not just the foreign and economic ministers, to the group's annual ministerial meeting.
The gathering will also mark the first major foreign-policy initiative the president has begun on his own rather than in response to events. The leaders will talk informally on Friday and Saturday.
While some observers say APEC represents the best vehicle Clinton could have chosen, University of Washington Asia expert Donald Hellmann is skeptical of the organization: ``APEC is a forum, not an international organization with decisionmaking processes,'' he says.
Some APEC members envision the group gradually evolving toward a stronger policymaking role. The centerpiece of this year's ministerial meeting will be the formation of a committee to help the members chart a course toward liberalizing trade and investment policies. Currently the group has neither the authority nor the consensus to negotiate such a NAFTA-style trade accord.
Rostow has long seen an APEC as an organization with great potential. He tells of how, the night in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, he surprised interviewer Ted Koppel by suggesting on ABC's ``Nightline'' program that something even more historic had happened that day: the founding of APEC (Rostow says that the Berlin Wall's collapse had become inevitable by that time).
The group must overcome some big hurdles if it is to play a major role in Asia's future. Most notable is the diversity of the APEC membership. Because of the touchy politics between the three ``Chinas'' (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), the leaders at this week's meeting will not line up together for a group photo session, for example. For the same reason, APEC refers to its members as ``economies'' rather than ``nations.''