US bullies from a pulpit that Asia may not heed

Mixed feelings about US economic advice complicate Asia's attempts at unity in the region.

As Asia struggles out of economic crisis, officials and experts in the region are divided between those who believe American-led "globalization" is the inevitable way for-ward and those growing ever more irritated with the US.

To apply an old quip to a new context, many Asians seem to feel that Americans are like men: You can't live with them, and you can't shoot them.

The give-and-take at a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders and officials in Malaysia perfectly illustrates this paradox. When President Clinton announced he would skip the Nov. 17-18 summit session of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in order to focus on Iraq, many officials groaned in disappointment.

But when Vice President Al Gore showed up and spoke out in favor of a nascent political reformation movement in Malaysia, the reaction wasn't pretty. The country's foreign minister called the comments a "brazen violation of the basic tenets of relations between sovereign states." Other leaders joined the criticism as well.

Disagreement, and not just over things American, has long been a dominant characteristic in the disparate lands that the ancient Greeks first labeled "Asia." It isn't a region with much positive experience with cohesion - take Japan's forced march toward "Co-Prosperity," which went up in the flames of World War II.

More recently Australians, along with the Japanese (again) and the South Koreans, have led a new crusade for cooperation - a drier-than-toast process of confidence building intended to bring wary countries into partnership. Building APEC had all the drama of watching rice grow, but it did seem to be getting somewhere.

Then came the Asian economic crisis, which began in Thailand in July 1997 and brought widespread recession to what was once the world's most dynamic region. With countries riveted on their own problems, prospects for Asian unity are suddenly extremely fragile.

But as Europeans become more unified and North Americans pursue their free trade area, Asians know that disunity means disadvantage. The key question is how to achieve greater unity. And more pointedly, whether the US should be in the club or not.

To say that the level of frustration with the US is rising in Asia is an understatement, observes Manuel Montes, an economist at the East-West Center, a think tank in Honolulu funded by Congress. "The intellectuals in the region are talking about the poor role the US has played," Mr. Montes says. That "poor role" includes offering advice much more freely than cash, quashing Asian solutions, and appearing to go easier on troubled economies outside the region.

The US double standard

Japan, for instance, has committed many billions more dollars to Indonesia, South Korea, and Thailand than the US, but has to suffer heaps of abuse from US officials over its weak economy and debt-sodden banking system. "I don't think there's anyone [in the government] who appreciates the American government's 'friendly advice,' " says a Japanese foreign ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

US officials also shot down a Japanese plan to create an Asian Monetary Fund and seem unwilling to let the Japanese proceed on their own with a proposal to provide $30 billion to help Asian economies. In Malaysia, the two governments surprised everyone by announcing a separate "joint" initiative to provide an additional $10 billion in economic assistance.

"It's becoming so blatant," grumbles Jomo Kwame Sundaram, an economist at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, referring to a perceived double standard in the way the US dispenses aid in times of an economic crisis. As the leading contributor to the International Monetary Fund, Washington insisted that Asian recipients of IMF bailouts adopt stringent economic reforms.

US "generosity vis--vis the Russians and the Brazilians contrasts so sharply with the kind of conditions which were being imposed on the three countries in East Asia," says Mr. Jomo, referring to Indonesia, South Korea, and Thailand.

There has always been some anti-US sentiment in Asian discussions, but now the US is closely identified with the capital flight that ignited the economic crisis and with promoting the liberalization that left countries helpless to stop it.

"We're seeing people saying that the globalized economy is exceedingly dangerous," says James Abegglen, a Tokyo-based business consultant. He says countermeasures, such as the capital controls instituted by Malaysia in September, will become more common. "I can't imagine that Asia is going to leave itself vulnerable to being vandalized by US capital."

This atmosphere has revived interest in a plan to unite East Asian nations - excluding the US and other "Pacific" countries - an idea Washington opposes. The US has the world's biggest economy, which offers more than a little leverage. It also guarantees the defense of Asia's biggest economy, Japan. Trade frictions notwithstanding, this security dependence often makes the Japanese a proxy for the US in discussing Asian cohesion.

But several economists at a recent government-sponsored symposium in Tokyo backed an Asians-only arrangement, especially in comparison with the existing option: APEC. This motley group now includes 21 countries ranging from Canada to Chile and China to Australia. The original idea was to promote free trade in a choose-your-own-pace "Asian" style.

APEC has always had to withstand cultural clashes between Westerners who want to nail down deadlines for liberalization and openness, and Asians who insist on voluntary initiatives and consensus. The Asian stance is partly to ensure harmony and partly to do the minimum necessary to maintain access to export markets in the West while protecting industries at home.

In a classic example of this tension, last weekend the US failed to win full approval for a package of trade liberalization measures, thanks to resistance from Japan and other countries.

APEC has seemed particularly ineffective during the economic crisis, but its proponents say that it is still the best means to building cooperation to forestall another regional collapse. Despite the emotional America-bashing, says Peter Drysdale, professor of economics at the Australian National University in Canberra, there is a "hard-headed understanding in the region and in the troubled economies in particular that the remedies promoted by international organizations and the US really are essential to effective recovery." Given the US role in global economics, "there can't be an easy rejection of American involvement" in Asia, he adds.

Too diverse to come together

And there is always the question of whether Asians could work together without Americans to help make it happen. The European Union has coalesced without a single strong leader. But analysts of Asian unity argue that cohesion eludes the region because no country can lead - that Asians are too riven by enmity and diversity to come together as equals. Despite Europe's own history of conflicts, Asians have nothing like the sense of shared culture that Europeans developed. What is shared is a long list of wars, invasions, and other forms of uncooperative behavior.

The Japanese are too beholden to the US to forge an Asians-only group. The crisis has prompted some Japan-bashing in Asia, since the Japanese economy is doing little to help the region, beyond offers of cash. Japan's imports from the rest of Asia in the first half of 1998 are down nearly 10 percent compared with the same period in 1997. A lot of Asian producers are losing Japanese markets.

China is the most intimidating country in the neighborhood, but many other Asians are too wary to fall in step behind Beijing. China's burgeoning economy, after all, has provided some tough competition, creating one of the factors that lead to economic crisis.

And China has never been a team player, preferring to see itself as the "middle" or central kingdom - the place to which tributes flow.

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