EFFORTS to more closely bind East Asia and the United States have hit a ``possible malaise,'' says a high-level Clinton administration official, and nothing could symbolize it better than a plan by Singapore, a US ally, to flog an American teenager for the crime of painting graffiti on cars.
A number of diplomatic challenges in the region, from Singapore to North Korea, have slowed down a grand attempt by the Clinton administration to create a ``Pacific community,'' says Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs and former ambassador to China.
Last year, President Clinton tried to make East Asia a new US foreign-policy focus, mainly to expand export markets. US trade across the Pacific has exceeded that across the Atlantic by about 50 percent in recent years, Mr. Lord points out.
Clinton's first official trip abroad was to Tokyo and Seoul in July, and last November he sponsored the first summit of leaders from the new, 15-member Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group, the high point for his ``Pacific community'' initiative.
Since then, however, relations with East Asia's two giants, Japan and China, have worsened, while a confrontation over North Korea's nuclear program has become ``dangerous,'' Mr. Lord said in an interview with the Monitor.
In Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia have resented US demands on workers rights, while Thailand has resisted US pressure for protection of intellectual property rights. Taiwan was accused last week of trafficking in endangered species, notably tiger parts and rhino horns.
``These are the ... newer types of priorities in our foreign policy agenda,'' said Lord. ``They are legitimate. They reflect our interests as well as our values. But we've got to make sure that, cumulatively, they don't give a sense to our Asian friends that we're doing too much bilaterally.''
The administration has improved ties with Vietnam and New Zealand, while bringing Russia and China into talks on regional security. And another APEC summit planned for this fall will take Clinton to the region again.
``For the long term, these efforts will help build a community,'' Lord said. ``In these areas there is still a lot of momentum.'' With Japan, however, trade talks stalled two months ago and last week's resignation of a reformist prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, could set back for months US efforts to further pry open Japanese markets.
``The Japanese are going to be so preoccupied with politics that it is not going to help the negotiations,'' Lord said. ``Realistically, in the near term, Japan's bureaucrats are going to be very important because the politicians are going to be so intent on power realignment.''
With China, recent arrests of activists have set back Lord's hopes that China would have its most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status renewed this June. ``We have been trying to move MFN out of the center of our relationship. We have made progress, but I have to admit the last couple of weeks have greatly complicated our task.''
In the standoff over inspections of North Korea's nuclear facilities, the US plans to work with China to put pressure on Pyongyang. Although the US may seek economic sanctions, some officials doubt if they would work.