WITH Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, and the unsteady former Soviet states demanding whatever time the Clinton administration can spare from "the economy, stupid," renewed focus on Asia, where the United States has so many long-range interests at stake, seems unlikely. Asian countries are concerned that this could lead the US to benign neglect of the fastest growing region in the world. They worry that the Democrats will only have time to zero in on problems of trade (Japan) and human rights (China), passing up a
golden opportunity to develop comprehensive strategies for a new level of global and bilateral cooperation with both countries and the region at large.
Today's crisis in Africa or the Middle East, plus our still-strong Eurocentrist tendencies, too often eclipse our vast, but less sensational, interests in the Far East: Our trade across the Pacific is almost 40 percent larger than trade with Western Europe; we sell more to Japan than to France, Italy, and Germany combined; more to Indonesia than to all of Eastern Europe, more to Malaysia than to all of the former Soviet Union. If the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are gro uped as one market, four of our top seven trading partners are in East Asia. This dramatic growth is matched by the expansion of democracy, with free elections in Korea, Taiwan, and Mongolia and a return to representative government in Thailand and the Philippines.
Yet the region is still a volatile mixture of danger and opportunity requiring our steady attention and creative strategic planning. Serious trouble could break out on the Korean peninsula - between China and Taiwan or over the claims of six countries to the oil-rich Spratly Islands. The Khmer Rouge threaten to return Cambodia to civil war, and tension is mounting with Beijing over British efforts to strengthen democracy in Hong Kong.
Despite substantial gains for US business in Japan, which imports more per capita from the US than does America from it, a recession there is now reducing imports from America, thus again widening the trade gap to perhaps $50 billion. Meanwhile, our deficit with China will reach $18 billion this year, further exacerbating relations already riled by Chinese human rights abuses and military exports to some of the world's most egregious regimes. Congressional Democrats are sure to call for tougher measures to pressure both countries than George Bush allowed, steps the new administration may have difficulty moderating, given its campaign pledges.
Meanwhile, Japanese investments in the Southeast Asian countries of ASEAN have now overtaken those of the US. America's regional influence is further reduced as it cuts its aid programs, phases down its military presence by perhaps one-third and continues to restrain American business in Vietnam. East Asian countries will accept more Japanese investment, but they would far prefer to balance Japan's expansion with new American business. While they recognize the logic of modest US troop withdrawals, they a re groping for a new approach to regional security and clearly find that a discreet US military presence contributes to stability, whether they worry about China's growing deep sea navy, or whether Japan might end up filling any security vacuum.
At a time when East Asian countries would welcome a more economical, active America and favor an effective US Pacific force, our attention is on domestic priorities and on crises elsewhere in the world. The greatest danger is that, in this situation, we will ignore our long-term interests in Asia and focus on the region only where immediate domestic pressures require it. If we allow human rights abuse in China and trade gaps with Japan to dominate US relationships with them, we could easily find ourselve s as adversaries with both countries. This is a slippery slope easily made more so by domestic opinion that would inevitably trigger the worst reactive instincts in the cultures of both Asian giants.
How can we avoid this? First, we must view our understandable determination to open further Japanese markets and democratize Chinese society in the perspective of all goals we should be attempting to achieve. With Japan, we need to develop a true partnership for global cooperation in areas where our combined 40 percent of the world's gross national product would make a substantial difference and, in the process, assist both countries to plan for their own futures. Our gradually successful efforts to expa nd business opportunities in Japan should continue, but in proportion to our other objectives in Japan. No major power has been more cooperative with US foreign policies in the UN and around the world.
But the time has come to build with Japan a coalition for the good of mankind, not on the basis of obligation to the war's beneficent victor, but on common ground as equals. The key is how we approach this very different country. We can saddle up the horses, pound the trade negotiation table, and threaten retaliation; or we can deepen Japan's confidence in the US by constructing a closer, more reciprocal partnership across many global endeavors - and in the process, obtain the progress we seek on economi c barriers.
With China, common ground is shakier, but cooperation on global issues could grow. Already, China has played a useful role in the Cambodian peace process, in helping reduce North-South Korean tensions and in UN actions against Iraq. Its rapidly expanding market economy stimulates ever greater demands from its people for a more open society; and this growing openness itself can gradually lead to a more participatory and humane government. Again, the style of our approach will be more important than most A mericans recognize: It is common ground we seek, and within that context we can effectively press for equitable trade regimes and UN-recognized standards of human rights. (In that regard, the Clinton administration should - in its current review of China policy - reconsider cranking up a costly, surrogate radio station aimed at China, now that the Voice of America is expanding its China-related programs).
Multilateral rather than bilateral approaches on these sensitive issues are likely to be more effective with rapidly growing East Asian countries, easily irritated when we appear to be imposing our models of democracy and human rights.
With Japan and China, then, the trick will be to encourage an expanded sense of their own ability to play responsible roles in the world commensurate with their growing power and success. President Clinton could highlight the importance of stronger relations with Japan by inviting Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa to Washington soon. Prime Minister Miyazawa should be urged to replicate elsewhere Japan's fledging UN peacekeeping effort in Cambodia (while we agree to support more actively Japan's bid for a pe rmanent UN Security Council seat). China should be encouraged to assist the former Soviet states to develop peacefully and weigh in with us for a nonnuclear-armed Ukraine. And the East Asian community should be assured that we plan to be more fully engaged economically and competitive in the region and will be working with them - but as partners, not patrons - to develop new approaches to regional security.
In July, the G-7 powers will meet in Tokyo; later in the year, the US will for the first time host the annual Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference of almost all countries in the region. The Clinton administration must find time between deficit reductions, Bosnia, and health-care reform to plan new approaches to East Asia and steadily pursue enormous American interests there. To a degree most Americans fail to realize, America's future depends on it.