PRESIDENT Clinton has won a partial victory in his attempt to reassert US influence in East Asia.
A Clinton proposal for an economic summit of 15 Asian-Pacific nations in Seattle this November was widely accepted by the region's foreign ministers during a July 24-28 meeting in Singapore.
But Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and perhaps one or two other nations may not attend the summit for reasons that reflect political divisions in the region. And the US had to pay a price for taking the bold step of trying to host the first summit of trans-Pacific leaders.
The US had to drop any opposition to the formation of an East Asia-only grouping of nations, known as the East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC). This group, first proposed in 1991 by the anti-Western prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, would exclude the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In the past, US officials have warned that such a group might lead to a regional economic bloc dominated by Japan.
Over the weekend, the EAEC was formally set up to operate within the context of two other regional organizations, rather than as an independent body. This compromise was worked out between Malaysia and Indonesia and may ease US concerns that it might be cut out of East Asian dialogue on economic issues.
"Our concern has been greatly eased by the decision [to place] the EAEC within the structure of APEC," said US Secretary of State Warren Christopher referring to the 15-nation grouping known as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, which includes the US. But Mr. Christopher said he was puzzled about how the new EAEC would work.
In addition to being under APEC, the EAEC will also receive "support and direction" from the economic ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Asian divisions
Made up of the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, ASEAN has been the most organized voice in Asia for nearly two decades. ASEAN ministers will meet in October to set up EAEC's framework. Japan, which was reluctant to support the new group for fear of offending Washington, is expected to join it, as might China.
"On the EAEC, we are now able to act on our conviction," says Singapore's Foreign Minister Wong Kan Seng. "If the other regions can have a group ... there's no reason why East Asian countries cannot get together for a forum to discuss economic issues."
Malaysia's Mahathir has flatly said he will not attend the "informal" summit of APEC. Launched in 1989 as a forum for talks on economic issues, APEC includes the six ASEAN states as well as South Korea, the US, Canada, New Zealand, China, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, with Mexico expected to join soon. The summit would take place after a two-day meeting in Seattle of APEC's economic ministers.
The other hitch in the summit is that China does not want leaders of Hong Kong and Taiwan to attend, even though both are APEC members. Beijing regards both of them as "regional economies" of China. US officials say Hong Kong and Taiwan may send lower-level leaders.
The US sees the APEC summit as another forum in which to "find ways to break down the remaining [trade] barriers and find ways to increase investment flows," Christopher said. But he also warned Asian countries to keep their markets open if they want a continued US military presence in the region.
Besides EAEC, the ASEAN meeting formed another new group bringing together 17 Pacific nations plus the European Community into an ASEAN Regional Forum. Regional security group
The forum, which first met on July 25, is designed to start "preventive diplomacy" over Asia's many security problems, as well as address proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
More a talking group than a formal structure, the new group is seen as a way to deal with the region's fears over China's military ambitions, Japan's temptation to become a nuclear power, North Korea's nuclear program, and many other issues. The forum can deal with "feelings of uncertainty and apprehension," said Japanese Foreign Minister Kabun Muto.
The next meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum is expected to take place next summer in Bangkok.