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NEWS ANALYSIS : By Axing Asia Trip, Clinton Undercuts U.S. Role in Region

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, President Clinton and other top American officials have been proclaiming the ever-increasing importance of Asia for U.S. foreign policy.

Now, the cancellation of the trip Clinton was planning to Asia this weekend has seriously damaged the American role in the Pacific in several important ways--undercutting U.S. initiatives with Japan, with China and with the region’s fragile new regional organization, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which is holding a summit meeting in Osaka, Japan.

For its impact on Asia policy, the President’s decision to stay home and deal with the budget could not have come at a worse time. At the moment, the future U.S. role in Asia is being called into question, and other countries, including China and Japan, seem to be changing their foreign policies in ways that take account of a more inward-looking America.

Indeed, the President’s absence at this weekend’s summit has raised, at least briefly, the specter of an Asia that the United States has long sought to prevent--an Asia in which Japan and China are the two dominant powers and America is merely an important neighbor who drops by from time to time.

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The impact of such a cancellation was acknowledged last week by the President’s own top policy-maker for Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord.

“There’s no chance that he [Clinton] will not go,” Lord told a media briefing here. However, he added, if the President stayed home, “it would deal a body blow to our partnership with Japan and it would also deal a body blow to APEC.”

Clinton’s decision to remain in Washington is only the most visible sign of the diminished U.S. presence at the Asia-wide meetings. In addition, Secretary of State Warren Christopher had to cut short his visit to Japan to return to Bosnian peace talks under way in Ohio.

The presidential postponement hurts U.S. policy in at least three concrete ways.

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First, it undermines U.S. policy toward Japan. Clinton’s trip was supposed to help reduce the simmering dispute there over the value of Japan’s military alliance with the United States and the more than 47,000 U.S. troops now stationed on Japanese soil. On the southern island of Okinawa, where three Americans are being tried for the rape of a Japanese schoolgirl, more than 60,000 protesters turned out last month for demonstrations against the U.S. military presence.

“All the work over the past couple of months on strengthening the defense relationship [between the United States and Japan], all that work has all been set back,” said Douglas Paal of the Asia-Pacific Policy Center.

Clinton had been scheduled to sign a joint communique with Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, reaffirming and extending the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Now, although Vice President Al Gore has been dispatched to stand in for Clinton, the joint communique will not be signed. Clinton said Thursday that he hopes to reschedule his trip to Japan soon.

“What we’re going to see over a period of time is drift in the U.S.-Japan relationship,” said Mike M. Mochizuki, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. “And Japan is going to be concentrating much more on East Asia [than on the United States].”

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Second, Clinton’s cancellation diminishes America’s role in APEC--an organization that Clinton has done more than any other leader to nurture.

During the late 1980s, several Asian leaders, particularly Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, had suggested the creation of a regional organization that included only East Asian nations and excluded the United States.

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In response, first Australia and then the United States countered with the idea of APEC, a cross-Pacific group that would include not only East Asian nations but also the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico. The idea was to prevent the development of some exclusive Asian trade bloc whose markets would be closed to outsiders.

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It was Clinton who convened the first summit meeting of APEC leaders in Seattle two years ago. And he led the way at APEC’s second summit near Jakarta, Indonesia, last year, when the organization set a goal of free trade in the region by the year 2020.

Now APEC seems to be retreating from its free-trade goals. Japan and China are proposing that the organization limit the scope of trade liberalization. And Clinton won’t be there to try to change things.

Third, Clinton’s postponement is also a setback for U.S. relations with China. Those ties plummeted to their lowest level in a decade earlier this year, when Clinton decided to permit the visit of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui.

The Administration’s effort to restore ties with Beijing was based on the premise that Clinton would follow up his inconclusive summit meeting with President Jiang Zemin in New York last month by having a more productive session with Jiang in Osaka this weekend.

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Now the American and Chinese leaders may not meet again for a year. While it has not been publicly announced, Gore is said to be planning a visit to China early next year. But the Chinese place much greater emphasis on a meeting with the President.

Beyond these tangible effects, Clinton’s cancellation serves as confirmation of what Asian leaders have always feared: that with the end of the Cold War, the United States would become too preoccupied with domestic issues to preserve its international role.

“Closing down our government is not something other governments are familiar with,” said former Assistant Secretary of State William Clark Jr. “In Japan, you have a session [in the Parliament] where they talk about everything but the budget and then they pass the budget.”

“The reason [Clinton] is not coming does not seem like a plausible reason from Tokyo. It doesn’t add up,” said Asia scholar Chalmers Johnson. To Asians in general, Johnson said, “this country . . . doesn’t look like a superpower.”

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