COLUMN ONE : Asia's Tigers Flex Their Muscles : U.S.-China tussle over trade and human rights shows how economic might has given Pacific nations the clout to defy the West. Frictions are likely to keep rising.


Nearly 30 years ago, the United States issued a clarion call against the spread of communism in Asia, and Southeast Asian nations eagerly united behind the U.S. initiative.

But when Washington tried to pull together similar support this year to isolate Myanmar, where human rights violations are rife, the coalition balked.

Thailand said that instead of isolation it would offer "constructive engagement" to the military regime in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong paid a friendly state visit to Yangon, the capital. The six-member Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations even invited Myanmar to send the leader of its military junta to its annual meeting here this July.

More and more, the economically booming nations of Asia are flexing their political muscle in disputes with the United States and the West, especially on such sensitive issues as human rights, freedom of expression and labor rights.

Some call it the Asian Way; others refer to neo-Confucianism or East Asian authoritarianism. A hybrid of traditional Asian culture and 1990s economics, this doctrine champions society over the individual and "family values" over what is seen as corroding Western influences.

Most important, according to its ardent believers in China and the surrounding states of Southeast Asia, economic development requires a period of political stability not possible under democracy--a notion derided by Western critics as justification for tyranny.

Whatever the name, the Asian Way doctrine is a distinctly post-Cold War phenomenon that may spell declining U.S. influence in the region and threatens to raise friction across the Pacific in years ahead.

"With the growth of their economic prosperity, East Asian countries are becoming more assertive politically," said Washington SyCip, a prominent Manila business consultant. "I think you'll see them being more and more forthright and stating what their values are."

Bearing him out are statistics showing the combined gross domestic product of East Asia--Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and the Southeast Asian nations--was 4% of the world economy in 1960; by 2010, it is expected to be 33%.

Samuel P. Huntington, a Harvard professor, speculated in an essay published last year that Asia and the United States were entering a "clash of civilizations" that inevitably followed the clash of ideology that predominated in the Cold War.

"A West at the peak of its power confronts non-Wests that increasingly have the desire, the will and the economic resources to shape the world in non-Western ways," Huntington wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

Is the Asian Way really new? After all, both Taiwan and South Korea boomed economically under authoritarian regimes and have made the transition to democracies.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States was more willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in the name of anti-Communist solidarity. Only since the Cold War ended in 1988 has Washington seemed eager to confront Asian countries with broader issues of democracy and labor rights.

The most dramatic example of Asian muscle-flexing is the debate between Washington and the Communist rulers in Beijing over human rights, culminating in President Clinton's decision, announced Thursday, to renew most-favored-nation trade status for China. The United States had linked continuation of the trade benefits with human rights improvements, but Clinton was forced to make an embarrassing retreat.

When Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Beijing in March, Premier Li Peng warned him that China "will never accept U.S. human rights concepts."

As Christopher expressed outrage at the detention of Chinese dissidents, Li responded by warning that if its trade status is revoked, "the United States will suffer no less than China."

China's economy is booming, with growth at 13.4% last year, and European as well as U.S. businesses are scrambling to enter the market.

Even though China runs a $23-billion surplus with the United States, meaning it would suffer much more from a trade drop, it was U.S. business interests that spoke gloomily about the potential loss of 200,000 jobs if MFN status were revoked--enough to sway the President.

While many Asian countries remain wary of a resurgent China, the U.S. linkage of trade and human rights did not find a sympathetic audience in the region.

"When China becomes powerful in 20 or 30 years' time, there is no reason why China should behave kindly toward the West," Singapore's Goh said when asked about the possible effect of trade sanctions on Beijing. "That's our worry: China may want to flex its muscles, and then it will be a very troublesome world."

He added that Singapore will continue to invest in China no matter what the United States decides to do.

Then-Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa undercut Washington during a recent visit to China by declaring, "It is not sensible for Western countries to impose their values of democracy on other countries."

Even Australia, normally a champion of human rights but now courting Asia's business, has parted company with the United States in its dispute with China.

Australia's ambassador to Washington, Don Russell, urged the Clinton Administration in April to drop its aggressive pursuit of human rights and adopt a low-key dialogue with China using "constructive, non-confrontational engagement."

Southeast Asian nations are similarly assertive with the United States and Europe about Myanmar, because of budding economic ties and dislike of outside interference.

No one disputes the country's appalling human rights record, in which thousands of demonstrators have been killed and the military junta has rejected the results of a May, 1990, election that was won in a landslide by the opposition National League for Democracy. The League's chairwoman, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest for nearly five years.

Winston Lord, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, called on Myanmar's neighbors to help isolate the country's generals until the human rights picture improved. But last month, Lord was forced to concede that "as friends," the United States and Southeast Asia "have agreed to disagree on the approaches."

Singapore is the largest investor in Myanmar, followed by Thailand and Japan. But beyond economic questions, Southeast Asian countries are loath to allow outside powers to interfere in what they consider to be the internal affairs of a neighboring state.

"If we were to adopt the Western approach with Burma, we would be abandoning our role," Thai Foreign Minister Prasong Soonsiri said. "We are neighbors, and we should keep up relations in order to bring them out into the world community."

The other members of ASEAN--Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines--have agreed to follow the policy of "constructive engagement" toward Myanmar.

One of the paradoxes of the recent assertion of the Asian Way is that no two Asian nations are culturally identical. Corruption-free Singapore stands in contrast to the venality of Indonesia and Thailand, and the media are as free in the Philippines and Thailand as they are controlled in Malaysia and Singapore.

Critics, mostly in the West, argue that there really is no "Asian Way." They say this is a convenient slogan seized by undemocratic rulers to justify their continued hold on power.

Indonesian President Suharto, who took power in the 1960s after a military coup, has presided over dramatic economic growth in his crowded nation, the largest in Southeast Asia. Suharto has argued that it is unrealistic for his country to use Western standards.

"We are people of the East, so we must use Eastern standards," he said in a speech in May. "We cannot don Western clothes because they are too big. It would make us look like scarecrows."

One example of the "Eastern standard": 21 Indonesian students were sent to prison for six months this month for slandering the president by holding up banners outside Parliament. The sentences were considered light compared to another student who received four years in prison on the same charge in February.

Indonesia's differences with the West over human rights escalated after army troops killed about 200 demonstrators in the former Portuguese province of East Timor in November, 1991.

The Jakarta government announced that it would spurn further aid from European countries rather than have human rights strings attached.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed has warned Asian states against becoming the "slave of democracy." He asserted in a speech last year that too much democracy leads to moral decay, homosexuality, widespread drug use and the collapse of the work ethic.

When Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating called Mahathir "recalcitrant" for not attending last year's transpacific talks in Seattle, Mahathir flexed his country's new economic muscle by hinting at trade sanctions against Australia. Keating hastily apologized.

Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, now a senior minister in the government and a political theorist whose views are much in vogue in Asia these days, remarked recently: "With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries. Democracy has not led to development because the governments did not establish stability and discipline necessary for development."

Vietnam, which like China is emerging from decades of orthodox Communist rule to embrace market capitalism, warned that despite the shifting economy, the country is not about to abandon communism for democracy or multi-party ideology. Vietnam is expected to be invited to join ASEAN soon.

When Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt visited Hanoi in April and waxed eloquent about free economies needing free societies, the government chopped the offending remarks from a translation of his speech.

Vietnam's hard-line attitude was demonstrated in recent months when the government agreed to allow Western organizations, including the U.S.-based Freedom Forum, to conduct seminars on journalism, and then canceled the meetings at the last minute without explanation.

Kishore Mahbubani, the top civil servant in Singapore's Foreign Ministry, published an essay in the Washington Quarterly this year in which he blamed the United States' current troubles on too much freedom.

"In a major reversal of a pattern lasting centuries, many Western societies--including the United States--are doing some major things fundamentally wrong, while a growing number of East Asian societies are doing the same things right," Mahbubani said.

A Stanford University professor wryly observed that Singapore's recent caning of American teen-ager Michael Fay for vandalism made him the first known victim of the "clash of civilizations" expected to take place between Asia and the United States.

Clinton denounced the punishment as extreme, but many Asians--and a fair number of Americans--decried the United States' crime rate and said it needed to adopt more stringent punishments.

"If there is a single fundamental difference between the Western and Asian world views, it is the dichotomy between individual freedom and collective welfare," a Singapore businessman, Ho Kwon Ping, told a meeting of lawyers this month.

He said that while Western countries might prefer to see a guilty man go free than convict an innocent man, Asians would prefer "an innocent person to be convicted if the common welfare is protected. And better for a guilty person to be free if conviction would inflict further harm on the community."

Apart from the issue of human rights, few things make Asian leaders bristle as much as the Western media.

China, Malaysia and Singapore have banned individual ownership of satellite dishes to prevent direct reception of Western programming, which they view as an assault on Asian values.

Still, a dispute arose this month when the respected British Broadcasting Corp. withdrew its news programs from Malaysia after government censors excised a filmed report about labor strife in neighboring Indonesia. The Singapore government has restricted the circulation of Western newspapers and magazines such as Time and The Economist because officials dislike their coverage of Singapore affairs.

Under pressure from China, media magnate Rupert Murdoch announced that the BBC World Television program was being withdrawn from transmissions on the Hong Kong-based Star Television satellite service. It was replaced with Chinese-language movies.

Earlier this year, Malaysia barred new business deals between British firms and the government in retaliation for a series of exposes in London's Sunday Times alleging corruption in the Malaysian government's awarding of contracts.

Murdoch, who owns the Sunday Times, subsequently moved the editor of the paper, Andrew Neil, to a job in the United States.

"He was the cause of the government's decision to ban new government contracts for British companies," Mahathir crowed after Neil's transfer was announced.

Another issue on which Asia and the West seem likely to collide is labor rights.

The United States and France have suggested that a worldwide minimum wage be adopted by the World Trade Organization to stop the exploitation of workers in poor countries.

Malaysia's Mahathir said the West's "professed concern about workers' welfare is motivated by self-interest," because, he said, low wages are the developing world's only competitive advantage against the industrialized West.

"Washington's new-found concern for workers' rights is downright hypocritical," the Bangkok Post said in an editorial.

Singapore's Lee even argued that the U.S. position was responsible for labor unrest last month in Medan, Indonesia, in which one person was killed.

"Asians believe the intended beneficiaries (of the U.S. pressure) are not workers in Indonesia and Malaysia but American trade unions belonging to the AFL-CIO who fear losing jobs to low-wage countries," Lee said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World