Pacific Rim Meets Emerald City

Casual city is perfect venue for airing causes before a pack of 2,000 international journalists

SEVERAL thousand Pacific Rim officials and journalists are being greeted with mixed messages as they descend on Seattle this week.

On the one hand the city is serving up healthy portions of traditional Northwest hospitality to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC). On the other hand, numerous protests are planned, trying to capitalize on the presence of perhaps 2,000 news reporters.

Demonstrations on Chinese human rights and AIDS in Asia, as well as a 24-hour ``prayer for justice and peace'' vigil, will occur tomorrow and Saturday, the days when President Clinton and top leaders from 13 other APEC economies will be in town.

Mr. Clinton could hardly have chosen a better venue for informal relationship-building, despite the usually cloudy skies in this season. Dress is casual in Seattle and people chat with strangers at grocery checkout lines and on the bus. Some locals are even trying to invite more grizzly bears into the nearby Cascade mountains to help the burly beasts avoid regional extinction.

Somewhat paradoxically, Seattle's low-key neighborliness is combined with strong international business ties. Washington State's per-capita trade is the highest in the union. Thus it is a fitting venue as America hosts its first meeting of the four-year-old economic-cooperation forum.

All week dark-suited officials have scurried in and out of meeting rooms discussing how to improve the trade and investment climate in the Pacific Rim. The Clinton-hosted leaders meeting will cap the week with a dose of fresh air. Cast as an idea-sharing ``retreat'' rather than a ``summit,'' it will be held on rustic Blake Island, a state park reachable by ferry.

Activists don't want the leaders to forget their troubles, however. Asia Watch released a report this week on rights abuses throughout the region, which the group said were occurring ``despite, and in some cases because of, economic development.''

Meanwhile, environmentalist Denis Hayes, writing in the Seattle Weekly, warns that ``free-trade ideologues want to `harmonize' all environmental regulations to the weakest common denominators,'' keeping nations from protecting the environment, using trade sanctions such as bans on tuna caught with dolphin-killing methods. Representing half the world economy, ``APEC corporations can either be a model for sustainable development or they can lead the world down a dead-end street,'' Mr. Hayes says.

Business, too, is milking the conference for all it's worth. Boeing Company, which views Asia as its fastest-growing market, has produced more special tours than airplanes this week. At a convention-center trade show, Washington CEO magazine promotes itself by offering tasty chocolate-covered fortune cookies with messages like: ``13 percent of all Japanese imports from the US are products made in Washington.'' Nearby, Richard Sesnewicz touts drug- and weapon-detecting X-Ray machines made by American Science and Engineering of Cambridge, Mass. ``Don't just take my word; ask the people at US Customs,'' he tells an Indonesian official.

Then there's the NAFTA booth, staffed by Canadian, US, and Mexican officials. Asian visitors have proved quite curious about the North American Free Trade Agreement, wishing to acquire the phonebook-thick treaty text rather than the NAFTA-at-a-glance brochures that are free to take.

The press corps here, which like any army marches on its stomach, is treated to seafood delicacies and other local treats. Bubbly- warm Mayor Norm Rice makes the rounds to make sure reporters are feeling at home in Seattle. ``I'm excited and proud,'' he says. ``But like any host I'm a little bit anxious.''

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