TODAY President Clinton is in Seattle meeting with leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Though relatively unknown, APEC's membership encompasses half the world's output of goods and services and about 40 percent of the world's trade.
At APEC, the media will focus on the economic dynamism of the Pacific rim and on the US trade deficit with Japan and China.
As we debate issues of rice, semiconductors, and cars, however, we should remind ourselves of an arena where the United States holds an unchallenged surplus with Asia - and with the rest of the world. That commodity is foreign students.
Foreign students spend more than $6 billion in the US every year. East Asian and Pacific students alone spend $3 billion. Department of Commerce figures show that expenditures by foreign students have been increasing $500 million a year. By any measure, foreign study at American colleges and universities is a growth industry.
Such growth is not trivial, even in a trillion-dollar economy. It rivals or outstrips big-league US exports like wheat, soybean, corn coal, and lumber - even if it can't match export superstars like aircraft and computers.
In the 1992-93 academic year, 214,535 students from East Asia and the Pacific studied in the US. They were 48 percent of the 419,585 foreigners studying here - and the largest segment of foreign students in any country. Eight of the top 10 places of origin for foreign students are in Pacific Asia: China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.
Of course, the significance of foreign students in the US is greater and more interesting than their immediate contribution to our economy. Students flock here for one simple reason: US colleges and universities offer a combination of size, scope, and caliber of educational opportunity that is unmatched.
Although their interests are as varied as those of American students, their fields of study are focused mainly on business and management (20.1 percent) and engineering (17.7 percent). The next most popular area is physical and life sciences (8.8) followed by mathematics and computer science (8.7 percent), the fine arts (5.1), health sciences (4.1), humanities (3.8), and agriculture (2).
What foreign and American students learn from each other may be intangible; but it is of no less importance. Foreign students bring to the US vitality, energy, and new ideas. In turn, they experience the debate, tumult, and freedom of a democratic, ethnically diverse, free-market society.
They discover that the US is more than the sum of heavy metal and rap music, television sitcoms, and violent Hollywood films. We may be the nation of Madonna and Homer Simpson, but we are also the nation of Toni Morrison and I.M. Pei. We may export MTV, but we also export cutting-edge computer technology and the Boeing 777.
For thousands of individuals from other nations, the experience of living and learning in the US lasts a lifetime. Foreign students may not leave uncritical of America or less committed to bettering their own societies. But most return home imbued not simply with the values of democracy, but also with a deeper understanding of the fundamental interconnectedness and richness of the modern world.
They carry their American experiences with them into the future as they move into positions of influence and leadership.
The value of educational exchange can be seen in the APEC meeting in Seattle.
Representatives of the 15 APEC members are holding their fifth ministerial meeting to hammer out a framework for trade and investment liberalization. On Saturday, Mr. Clinton will meet with Asian and Pacific leaders on Black Island in Puget Sound, in an informal setting designed to encourage reflection and candor.
Of the heads of government scheduled to attend this summit, four have participated in exchange programs here in the United States sponsored by the US Information Agency: Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai of Thailand, Prime Minister Paul Keating of Australia, President Kim Young Sam of Korea, and Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa of Japan. President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines is a graduate of both the University of Illinois and West Point.
The APEC agenda may be economic in nature, but it embodies the core values of our nation's mosaic of international student-exchange programs: that of building up mutual understanding and breaking down barriers between peoples and nations.
In the end, perhaps, that may be the greatest benefit of all. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.