Clinton's Tightrope Trip to Asia Was a Feat of Diplomatic Balance

TWO things have tarnished President Clinton's pursuit of free trade along the Pacific Rim this week: criticism that he has sidelined the promotion of human rights and the possibility that a Republican-controlled Congress could undermine his trade strategy.

Wrapping up a three-day visit to Indonesia where he took part in a summit with 17 other leaders from the Asia-Pacific region, Mr. Clinton tried to ease concerns on both counts yesterday.

Human rights is a sensitive topic in this part of the world; Asian leaders have sought to portray US critics as preachy neoimperialists whose own country has a host of human rights problems. At the same time, Clinton has centered his foreign policy on increasing US access to the markets these leaders control.

This week Clinton's diplomatic tightrope was drawn more taut by a group of East Timorese students who have staged a sit-in at the United States Embassy in Jakarta.

Protesting Indonesia's 1976 annexation of their homeland and rights abuses by government troops, the students demanded to see Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

The US refused a meeting, but both Clinton and Mr. Christopher said yesterday that Indonesia would have to improve its human rights record.

Clinton, during a meeting with Indonesian President Suharto, ``emphasized that Indonesia has tremendous potential in international leadership, and its making progress [on human rights] will reinforce that,'' said a senior administration official speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Christopher sounded more blunt. ``The relationship between the United States and Indonesia can never reach its highest level,'' he told reporters, ``if the people of the United States don't have confidence that there is an effort here to respect the human rights of all the citizens.''

Again and again, United States officials had to assure the leaders gathered here for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that the results of last week's elections will not alter the course of US foreign policy.

A key issue is whether Congress will ratify the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, a long-negotiated pact that will ease commerce around the world. ``Just about every leader ... the president met with emphasized the importance of GATT and its approval,'' the US official said.

More than presidential face is at stake. If the Congress fails to approve GATT by the end of this year, White House officials worry that it will undermine Clinton's efforts to open Asian markets to US goods.

Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia has said he supports GATT ratification, but other influential Republicans may not cooperate with Clinton's wishes.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who is expected to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said this week that he opposes a vote on GATT before the end of the current Congress.

Clinton, in a speech yesterday to US businesspeople and Indonesian officials in Jakarta, underscored the importance he attaches to the pact by recasting an old cliche about party politics stopping ``at the water's edge'' in matters of national security. ``Today,'' he said, the admonition ``applies to national security defined in economic terms. We must pass the GATT and we should do it right away.''

Just in case anyone has missed the commercial emphasis of this administration's foreign policy, the backdrop behind the presidential podium yesterday featured round signs spelling it out. ``Opening markets in Asia,'' read one. ``Creating jobs in America,'' said the other.

Clinton proudly noted that US companies yesterday signed deals for projects in Indonesia worth more than $40 billion. He cited these transactions as the first fruits of what he called a long-term commitment to APEC and particularly Asia, the world's most economically dynamic region. While Europe and Japan - where the administration's market-opening strategy has had limited success - remain ``critical trading partners,'' he said, ``this new century we're about to enter compels a new strategy.''

The strategy entails ensuring greater US access to less developed countries now experiencing rapid growth rates. China is the obvious example, but the administration is also helping US companies to invest in and export to India, Indonesia, and Thailand.

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