US and Asia Eye Free Trade Pact With Deadline

Clinton at the APEC summit in Indonesia will push for more open trade at a fast pace - but perhaps with the gradual touch of Asian diplomacy

PRESIDENT Clinton, as he heads to Asia for a multilateral summit, will probably be very glad to get out of the United States for a few days.

But his party's defeat in Tuesday's midterm elections may help him get what he wants from the Asian leaders he will meet next week. In navigating the sensitive waters of Asian diplomacy, humility can only help.

Mr. Clinton will participate in a Nov. 15 summit of leaders of 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region at an Indonesian resort town called Bogor near the capital, Jakarta. He will urge them to accept a program of market liberalization, which could make it the most open area for trade and investment in the world.

The occasion is the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. APEC includes nations on both sides of the Pacific. More divides these countries than water, however; there are vast differences in culture, political systems, and levels of economic development.

A timetable for openness

The group was formed as a loose, consultative body in 1989 and had its first summit meeting last year in Seattle. Now the US is backing a plan by an APEC advisory group to implement a free-trade timetable that would require the countries to eliminate tariffs, ease rules on foreign investment, and harmonize standards by 2020, or even sooner.

This is the sort of ``just-do-it'' US approach that traditionally irritates many Asians. The key word in this part of the world in matters of multilateral diplomacy is ``gradual.''

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamed, for example, boycotted last year's summit to oppose what he called US domination of APEC. Mr. Mahathir continues to push for a grouping of East Asian nations that would exclude the US, Australia, and New Zealand, all members of APEC.

But there are several reasons why the APEC leaders may go along with the proposed free-trade timetable.

One is that the US seems less aggressive than it did last year. Clinton's decision to eliminate the link between human rights and US trade with China was applauded by many Asians. And Asians watched with satisfaction as the US climbed down from its tough, ``results-oriented'' rhetoric in dealing with Japan.

Although there is bound to be controversy, some key Asian countries have supported the idea of a deadline. ``I think we can support [the timetable],'' said a senior official of Japan's Foreign Ministry in an interview. ``We should be a little bold on that point.''

``If [the summit at] Bogor results in promises'' to further open markets, he added, ``that we have heard many times before. The very new point is to have a firm deadline by which you have to have trade liberalization.''

Indonesia's President Suharto, the host of the summit, is said to favor the plan. Mr. Suharto is influential because his country is the largest member of a group that is the core of APEC, the Association of South East Asian Nations. After decades of talk, the six countries of ASEAN agreed to begin establishing their own free trade area in 1992.

China, locked in a dispute with the US and other countries over what steps it must take to qualify for charter membership in the emerging World Trade Organization, may hold out on the timetable, but officials have reportedly said they can be talked into it.

Aside from the Nov. 15 summit, leaders and ministers from the participating countries will also hold bilateral meetings that may stray from the economic issues at hand.

At least four of the APEC countries - China, Japan, South Korea, and the US - are trying to work out the funding for two expensive nuclear reactors for North Korea.

In an agreement signed on Oct. 21, the US promised to head an international consortium that would provide two sophisticated light-water reactors, at an estimated cost of $4 billion, as the principal enticement to get the North Koreans to comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Since then there has been some controversy, and a good deal of private communication, over who will pay for the plan. Experts have said the bottom line is unrealistically low.

Japan was supposed to fund a major portion of the project, but its officials have called for European participation and refused to commit to anything other than ``due cooperation.''

At APEC, said another Japanese official this week, ``our government is not going to talk about ... exact shares of contribution because it is too early.''

Clinton is also expected to raise human rights concerns with Suharto, even though the topic is especially sensitive. Asian officials have repeatedly accused the US of using the issue to win trade concessions.

On the other hand, Indonesia has long been criticized, inside and outside the country, for its repression of journalists and unionized workers.

In recent months the government has closed down publications critical of the regime and this week a court sentenced the leader of the country's largest independent labor union to three years in prison for instigating a riot in April.

A relaxed meeting

Last year's APEC summit was unusually relaxed for a large meeting of heads of government, which tend to be scripted affairs planned out in advance by bureaucrats. Clinton stressed informality at the Seattle meeting, and Bogor promises to be a similarly casual and secluded setting.

This context is appropriate to the region, says Godwin Chu, an expert on Asian culture and communications at Honolulu's East-West Center. In many countries in Asia, leaders have traditionally resolved problems alone, behind closed doors.

``Whether this formula will create a rapport between Clinton [and other leaders], I don't know,'' says Professor Chu.

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