Press Asia to Share Its Own Defense : Narrow interests have been set aside for economic benefit; why not for multilateral support to reduce the U.S. burden?

<i> Jonathan Clarke, a former member of the British diplomatic service, is with the Cato Institute in Washington</i>

Nearly two years ago, President Clinton hosted the inaugural summit meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Surrounding himself with Asian leaders, he proclaimed the dawn of a new era in transpacific relations. His more rhetorically inventive aides even compared the meeting to the post-World War II establishment of NATO and the International Monetary Fund.

Who today has heard of APEC? Who knows that its leaders, representing 40% of the world’s population and more than 50% of global production, will meet in two weeks? Virtually no one.

Given this Administration’s notoriously short attention span, it is perhaps not surprising that Asian relations should have been allowed to atrophy. Evidence of this was made clear in the contrast between the empty bonhomie of Clinton’s meeting in New York with Boris Yeltsin and the dour frigidity that marked his discussion with China’s Jiang Zemin. But now that diplomatic successes in Bosnia and the Middle East have buoyed his foreign policy confidence, Clinton would be well advised to turn his attention to Asian affairs.

APEC, if properly used, could turn into a strategic asset for advancing U.S. interests. The economic factors are relatively well known, but one key fact bears restating: For every 1% in overall APEC growth, around 300,000 American jobs are created. Unfortunately, there also are trends working against U.S. interests. Trade between Asian countries is growing faster than trade across the Pacific. Through its emphasis on genuinely open competition, APEC can help correct this imbalance.


Over the longer perspective, however, security looms as a more pressing concern. In this regard, the Administration has been woefully reluctant to rethink inherited dogma. The Defense Department’s security strategy in the East Asia-Pacific region issued in February simply restates Cold War strategy under which, through a series of bilateral treaties, the United States takes care of regional security. This strategy worked well, and it still suits the Asians. Free of security worries, they can devote themselves to making money.

In terms of equitable distribution of defense burdens, however, this strategy is manifestly ludicrous. A more serious defect is that it is increasingly suspect in terms of its stated goal of preserving Asian stability. The treaties, conceived as they were in the 1950s as straightforward anti-Soviet bulwarks, have served their purpose and now need to be replaced.

Devising a new security system based on APEC would draw on what makes the organization unique among Asia-Pacific institutions: its sense of regional community. This may sound hopelessly ethereal but, in fact, fostering a sense of community among perennial adversaries was the genius of American reconstruction efforts in Western Europe after World War II. A similar trick needs to be performed in Asia.

Instead of a one-dimensional threat, the region faces security challenges from all directions. Japan, China and (post-unification) Korea all have reason to be suspicious of each other, the Japanese prime minister’s recent refusal to condemn his country’s occupation of Korea being but the latest irritant. The smaller Asian nations are concerned about Japanese economic hegemony and China’s capability to project its power. China and Taiwan stare at each other through missile launchers and high-performance aircraft. Multiethnic nations like the Philippines and Indonesia are subject to internal stress.

In none of these potential regional rivalries would the United States necessarily wish to choose sides, let alone be drawn in as a combatant. Yet, in the absence of a multilateral security system, this may be exactly what happens.

Traditionally, the Asians have argued that the threats in the region are too diffuse or that it contains too much ocean for European models to apply. Fair enough. But this amounts to a demand that the United States continue to do most of the heavy lifting. From a U.S. point of view, this is intolerable. Why, for example, should the United States incur China’s enmity for opposing its arms buildup and thereby open the door for Japanese and Korean firms to walk away with the major infrastructure contracts in China?

At the 1991 NATO summit, George Bush read the riot act to America’s European partners to take security seriously or risk American withdrawal. In suitably subtle terms, Clinton should leave the same message at the Nov. 18 APEC summit: Cooperation is not only about money and trade; it includes security. APEC may not be the perfect forum for this purpose, but it is better than pretending that the problem doesn’t exist.