NEWS ANALYSIS : Policy-Makers Race to Keep Up With New Asia


During his six-day transpacific journey, his first overseas trip since taking office, President Clinton displayed a pronounced interest in concluding trade deals and a willingness to make some modest alterations in U.S. policy toward Asia.

But the question is whether Asia is now changing faster than the Clinton Administration can keep up with it.

In particular, the new President came face to face with two developments that are likely to keep his Administration scrambling over the next few years. The first is a Japan in the midst of political transformation, and the second is an impoverished North Korea with nuclear and missile programs increasingly menacing to its neighbors.

Clinton demonstrated on his trip that he does not want the United States to simply stand pat in Asia or to seek merely to preserve its old post-World War II position of dominance in a region that grows richer and stronger by the day. He spoke vaguely of the idea of a "new Pacific community built on shared strength, shared prosperity and a shared commitment to democratic values."

His Administration wants to keep the essentials of U.S. policies in Asia--free trade across the Pacific and an American troop presence that deters the rise of any other military superpower, whether it be China, Japan, Russia or India.

In order to do this, the Clinton Administration is tinkering slightly with old, longstanding U.S. policies to try to show new, more flexible approaches. For example:

* In Seoul, Clinton gingerly broached the idea of some sort of regional security organization in Asia to supplement U.S. military alliances. For years, the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations opposed such security proposals on grounds that they might be perceived throughout Asia as a substitute for U.S. military power in the region or, ultimately, as a fig leaf for an American withdrawal.

"In Asia, Japan is becoming too influential, and this is not desirable," Lee Jung Min, a research fellow at South Korea's Sejong Institute, said after hearing Clinton's proposal. "But the U.S.-Japan relationship is eroding slowly, and we should note that Clinton proposed a multilateral security system not in Japan but in Korea."

* Clinton also pressed the cause of democracy in Asia, and of a U.S.-sponsored Asian Democracy Radio network, much more strongly than did the Reagan and Bush administrations--which were considerably more reluctant to offend authoritarian Asian leaders.

"Today, some argue democracy and human rights are somehow unsuited to parts of Asia or that they mask some cultural imperialism on the part of the West," the President told South Korea's National Assembly. He was referring to arguments made by China and Indonesia at a recent U.N. Conference on Human Rights.

Clinton rejected the argument that human rights in Asia should be judged by special standards. "Democracies not only are more likely to meet the needs and respect the rights of their people, they also make better neighbors," he said.

Yet Clinton's approaches to Asia raise problems of their own. In talking about a new Asian security organization or dialogue, for example, the President and his aides seem to find it easier to say what it should not do than what it should be.

The new Pacific community, or whatever it will be called, is not supposed to be a binding, regionwide military alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe.

It is not supposed to take the place of America's existing alliances with Japan and South Korea. It is supposed to be unapologetically for democracy, but it is supposed to avoid isolating China and its still-Communist government.

Top officials of the new Clinton team acknowledge that some of their ideas are still relatively unformed.

"Frankly, you can't sort of lay out a specific vision of an Asian NATO and expect everybody to agree to it," one senior Administration official said. "But we can hold out a picture of how things could look five to 10 years from now."

But the United States may not have the luxury of five or 10 years to figure out its role in Asia's future. Even at the whirlwind pace of a presidential trip, Clinton and his entourage saw plenty of signs of the rapid changes they will have to confront.

Japan is in the midst of its most important political election in 40 years. The Liberal Democratic Party that had been America's partner and supporter through the Cold War era may give way after next Sunday's vote to a new ruling party or coalition government.

"The fall of the LDP is good for the United States," another senior U.S. official said.

He was reflecting the common view, pressed repeatedly by Clinton in Tokyo, that Japanese consumers should have a greater voice in their government. If so, the consumers might press for a higher standard of living, lower prices and, U.S. officials hope, a Japanese market more open to imported goods.

But that is over the long run. For now, in the short run, the political changes in Japan are unsettling for the Clinton Administration--which rushed to conclude a trade deal with the lame-duck LDP government of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in the last hours of Clinton's visit to Tokyo precisely because the Americans fear that they may get a worse deal or no deal at all from a new Japanese government.

During Clinton's stop in Tokyo, Japan also took the first public step toward suggesting that it might be forced to develop its own nuclear weapons program.

At the Group of Seven summit meeting, Japan--the only nation ever subjected to atomic attack and for 48 years the most fervent opponent of nuclear weapons in the world--refused to commit itself to an indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The treaty, which sets down inspections and other procedures to prevent nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, expires in 1995. Japan's position is that it does not want to put itself on record in favor of an indefinite extension of the treaty if it can envision a future when it would be threatened by a nuclear-armed neighbor like North Korea.

Administration officials sought to play down the importance of Japan's action. But there is no doubt that Japan's hints of a change concerning nuclear weapons caught the attention of Clinton Administration officials.

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