Standing Up for US Interests in Asia

COPING with the East Asian economic challenge is proving difficult for many Americans. Japan, South Korea, and other Pacific-rim countries are in the ascendancy. Their rise is a major part of the redistribution of international power frequently perceived as related to what best-selling Yale professor Paul Kennedy referred to as the ``Fall of Great Powers.''

His controversial thesis has attracted a pack of critics. Some of them make valid points, but - on balance - Professor Kennedy's core argument, about the relative apportionment of power in a more multipolar world being caused by asymmetrical national responsibilities and costs, is more right than wrong. He clearly touched a nerve in the United States national consciousness, causing Americans to take more seriously a preexisting, and still ongoing, debate about national priorities and commitments.

In no area of US foreign relations is this debate more relevant and acute than the Asia-Pacific region. For years Americans have been ambivalent about the changes occurring in the area. Many US officials and scholarly experts on the region have been boosters for the economic success of the region's most advanced states, citing the benefits - to the US and the entire Pacific rim - of a larger economic pie, enhanced social stability, increased political cooperation, and marked improvements in regional security self-reliance.

Other Americans, however, are not so sure about the wisdom of all that has been done to encourage these successes and have profound doubts about the fairness of the resulting situation. These critics caution their fellow Americans about the inequities inherent in strategic ``free-riding,'' the lack of a ``level playing field'' in trade relations, and the danger of misperceiving predatory mercantilists as free-trading capitalists. Each side in this national debate makes certain valid points.

One can, and should, praise Asian states in the Pacific basin for all they have achieved. It also is legitimate, however, to question the wisdom of US reactions to that success. President Bush's trip to Japan, China, and Korea precipitated a spate of media analyses which - on balance - sought to encourage the US to adjust to change by sharing power with the ascendant states of the Asia-Pacific region. This is reassuring to those of us who long have advocated such a shift toward a consensus approach to troubling issues.

Clearly the most effective way to rectify the imbalances in trade and security that are the byproducts of trans-Pacific successes is to foster a common political perception of the problems and a shared willingness to do something constructive about them.

There are, however, several warning signals imbedded in the current enthusiasm about preparing for the Pacific century. Most obvious, the US is - and will likely remain - primarily a Euro-Atlantic country. Values, ethnicity, economics, and security will compel that orientation. This does not mean the US should not continue to enlarge its concurrent Pacific-basin focus. The US is in transition toward a more thoroughly bicoastal identity.

There is another factor which is much less obvious in the rush toward joining the Pacific century and sharing power with Asian states. Americans should not be hesitant about standing up - sometimes stridently - for US interests in Asia. They are in danger of letting the apologists for Asian states, the hired-gun lobbyists those states employ, and the defeatists who seem anxious to adjust to the ``decline'' of the US by accommodating the ascendancy of Asia, dominate the debate over proper US policy.

American leaders like Reps. Richard Gephardt and Marcy Kaptur and Sens. John Danforth, Lloyd Bentsen, and Jesse Helms do not deserve the scorn often accorded them for standing up for economic nationalism and patriotism in US relations with Asia.

Mr. Gephardt's refusal to let campaign setbacks deter his advocacy of non-protectionist trade fairness warrants praise because he is seeking reciprocity. Ms. Kaptur's criticism that ex-US government officials who become lobbyists for Asian trade rivals ``border on being economic traitors to this country'' evoked squeals of outrage from its targets, but she deserves comparable praise for her candor. Similarly, congressional critics of inequitable defense burden-sharing in Asia play important roles in fostering fairness.

Reciprocity and justice are legitimate goals for US policy in the Asia-Pacific region, and elsewhere. If Americans do not push diligently for US interests in a nationalistic and patriotic manner, they risk succumbing to Asian counterparts who do not hesitate to push precisely that way in pursuit of their own interests.

Power-sharing with Asians - desirable though it is - should not mean acquiescing to the positions of the Asiaphiles, apologists, or lobbyists in the US whose arguments are not predicated on US interests. Americans should, of course, listen attentively to their Asian partners, and consultations must become more of a genuinely two-way street. In this context, advocates of narrow-minded chauvinism are a danger to rational and fair policy. Though Americans must be wary of allowing these individuals to distort US policy, similar care must be taken to avoid letting that wariness weaken the ability of American leaders to stand up for US interests in Asia-Pacific partnerships.

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