PRESIDENT Clinton may have left Seattle thinking his Asia policy is on track, but the leaders of the other Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) nations have a much different view: They are thinking hard about a future in which the United States plays a diminishing role in Asia.
The polarity of thinking epitomizes the schism between Americans and Asians. Events at the APEC meeting clearly demonstrate that the US must dramatically change its policy toward China, Japan, and the other Asian members of APEC if it hopes to experience any success in the world's fastest-growing, most economically dynamic region. That change begins here at home.
In Seattle, the US failed in its aim to get APEC to commit to a formal regional negotiating process to open markets. The causes lay both in the substance and style of the US approach. In substantive terms, US officials could explain neither how APEC fit in with ongoing US bilateral trade talks nor how APEC rules would relate to US economic sanctions over human rights and arms proliferation.
Putting the APEC meeting immediately after the congressional vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement suggested that the US was going to strong-arm the Asian members, hence the fears voiced by smaller Asian nations that they would be ``trampled'' or ``eaten'' by the US. In addition, the failure of US trade representative Mickey Kantor to show up to greet his APEC counterparts illustrated the administration's chronic lack of attention to Asian policy issues. The US could hardly expect to lead APEC if it couldn't explain how APEC fit into its own trade policy and seemed to care little about the concerns of the group's members.
The inept US handling of the APEC meeting is an example of the way Washington's overall Asia policy is managed. The gathering of most APEC heads of state in Seattle was an open invitation to this administration to articulate a new vision of US policy toward Asia.
The Asian leaders know that US policy toward Asia today is incoherent and needs to be fixed, but they received no sign that Mr. Clinton realizes the dimensions of the problem.
It is an incoherent policy because it is an unrealistic policy. First, the US wants to increase its exports to Asia, which explains the US approach to APEC. At the same time, the US wants to promote democracy and human rights in Asia. Finally, it wants to prevent the rise of an Asian threat to its security by maintaining forward deployment and preserving a regional balance of power.
Each objective makes sense in isolation, but after the end of the cold-war containment policy they no longer naturally coincide. For example, China violates human rights and is becoming a threat to US security interests, but we still want to trade with it. The US has not faced up to the need to make tough choices.
The consequences were readily apparent at Seattle. Not only did the US fail to convince APEC members to approve a regional liberalization framework, but Chinese President Jiang Zemin gained a meeting with Mr. Clinton only to belittle his demands for better human rights and restraint in arms exports.
The Chinese obviously believe that when Clinton - a weak president who needs to mend fences with both business and labor - is forced to make a choice, he will have to sacrifice human rights and arms proliferation in favor of trade.
There are also longer-term consequences for the US. When the East Asian members of APEC soon gather for a scheduled meeting, they will talk about ``the US problem.'' Flagging US credibility and relevance to their regional concerns will prompt a more inward-looking approach to trade policy in East Asia. What else will emerge from that meeting? There will be more cynicism toward the moral dimension of US policy, and China will continue efforts to reduce US geopolitical influence in Asia in tandem with greater self-help efforts from Japan and South Korea in security affairs.
What the Clinton administration must now do is quit looking for quick fixes in its policies toward Asia. The APEC group will not be a quick fix, nor will trade sanctions against China, nor will another presidential tour of Asia. Present policy is simply incoherent and unsustainable, and it shows.
The US needs a strategic reorientation. It must realize that it cannot prevent China or Japan from becoming military superpowers, nor can it force Asia to play by US rules in trade or human rights.
In fact, America's task is largely domestic. It will have to be satisfied to serve as an exemplar of human rights, not as a policeman. It will have to leave regional security primarily to the management of Asians after the Korean re-unification issue is resolved. And because superior wealth and technology will be the key to international influence, the US will have to begin designing trade and industrial policymaking systems that serve long-term strategic interests more than short-term individual interests. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.