Clinton in Asia: Can He Recapture His Vision?

As President Clinton travels to the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, it is worth asking what has happened to his "new Pacific community." In July 1993, Mr. Clinton proclaimed his vision of a new Pacific community built on "shared strength, shared prosperity and a shared commitment to democratic values." Since then, some progress has been made toward a greater sense of community, but sustained American leadership is needed.

Community can grow out of shared interests, common values, and cooperative endeavors that benefit all. A sense of community can't be mandated, even by presidential rhetoric. It can be nurtured by wise leadership, by patiently building relationships, and by taking advantage of underlying trends.

Underlying trends are favorable to greater cooperation and cohesion in the Asia-Pacific region. A key driving force is economic integration, which is bringing people together across political boundaries and giving countries a mutual stake in peace. The technological change that is sweeping through Asia contributes to this. Even the Asia-Pacific's vast distances have been shrunk by modern transportation and instant communications. Urbanization and the emergence of educated and internationally mobile middle classes are another part of the process. So is the gradual spread of democracy and political pluralism. The past decade has seen the emergence of fledgling organizations, APEC and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF), that both reflect and contribute to the region's growing sense of common interests.

These are hopeful developments that can be guided and shaped through effective American leadership.

But there are also countercurrents - historical suspicions, a rising nationalism that could warp Asia's self-confidence toward xenophobia, territorial disputes, and uncertain political transitions. In addition, there is the dichotomy between "Asian" and "Pacific" visions of the region's future - the former would exclude and the latter would include the United States.

America's stakes in Asia are clear - economically, politically, and militarily. Our ties to the region grow as a result of immigration, trade, and the shrinking of the globe. The private sector understands this. Everywhere in Asia the expatriate American presence is increasing, US Chambers of Commerce are growing, and US-system schools are expanding. At home, universities are developing Asian programs, and Asian language study is rising.

But America's interests in Asia have not received sustained attention from the administration. The president's hosting of the first APEC leaders meeting was important, but otherwise his attention to Asia has been sporadic. In 1995 he chose to absent himself from the Osaka, Japan, APEC meetings because of the budget crisis. In 1994, Secretary of State Warren Christopher allowed a scheduling conflict to prevent him from attending the historic first ARF meeting. Asians read messages in these absences.

National Security Adviser Anthony Lake's visit to China this May has been praised justly, but this is his first visit to China. Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff's first visit to Southeast Asia occurred only in the fourth year of the administration. Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord is now the only senior administration official with real knowledge of Asia. But one assistant secretary cannot carry the responsibility of nurturing our personal ties with the leaders of Asia.

Congress's attention to Asia has been no better. A few senior members still travel to Asia, but most of the prominent internationalists in the Senate are retiring. Rep. Doug Bereuter (R) of Nebraska has chaired serious policy hearings in the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. But his work is the exception. State governors seem to have a much clearer awareness of our economic interests in Asia.

Steve Covey's book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," identifies the ability to devote attention to issues that are "important but not urgent" as a key attribute of effective leadership. This book has been on Washington's best-seller list throughout Clinton's first term and the 104th Congress, but its message doesn't seem to have registered.

Our interests in Asia need consistent attention at the highest levels of government - even when headline-grabbing events are not involved. Otherwise, the emerging community in the Asia-Pacific is more likely to follow an "Asian" rather than a "Pacific" direction.

The quadrennial transition to a new administration presents an opportunity to ensure Asia's place among US priorities. The president's advisers again tout the fact that his first postelection trip is to Asia. This reflects the predetermined scheduling of multilateral meetings, not coherent policymaking. The key to future policy will be whether the senior foreign policy appointments include people with experience in Asia. Absent such appointments, we will likely be in for four more years when America's long-term interests in Asia will be short-changed. Asians are watching closely. Americans should be too.

*David G. Brown is a senior associate at the Asia Pacific Policy Center in Washington.

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