A Balance of Interests

PRESIDENT Clinton's trip to Seattle Nov. 18 for a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Seattle is the strongest signal yet that his administration sees closer ties with Asia as critical to the economic well-being of the United States.

And for good reason: US trade with Asia, which includes countries with the second- and (by some counts) third-largest economies in the world after the US, amounted to $344 billion last year, about half again as much as the value of trade conducted between the US and Europe. Asian economies combined are growing roughly 6.5 percent a year, while Europe, at least for now, is stagnating.

Yet it is troubling to hear the administration post the notion that, as US Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord has said, ``Europe is still very important but, in relative terms, Asia has become more important for America - and not just for economic reasons.''

If by this the administration means that it is righting a balance between Asia and Europe, such a balance is overdue. But the United States cannot afford to tilt in Asia's direction at Europe's expense. Such a desire is understandable. After eight years of talks to reduce global trade barriers in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, France's farm lobby has continued to threaten to sink the negotiations over the issue of crop-price supports and subsidies. And one of the foreign-policy problems that the White House might most like to forget lies in Europe: the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Yet the US has strong economic, political, cultural, and historical links to Europe. Many Europeans rightly see a continued US presence, through NATO and strong economic ties, as a long-term stabilizing factor there. Interestingly, that same reasoning led Australia, which first suggested establishing APEC, to insist that the US be a member of that organization.

APEC's development from a consultative body to something more formal - even a free-trade area - will take time. Another US official's observation that, in breaking down trade barriers, APEC members will see that they are ``neighbors with more that unites us than divides us'' understates the vast cultural, political, and economic differences within Asia as well as across the Pacific.

US-Asia ties need to be strengthened. But those ties need not and should not come at Europe's expense.

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