With words like "ugly American" echoing in the halls here, U.S. policy on Asia is facing intense scrutiny and fierce criticism today as Vice President Al Gore finishes a highly charged Pacific Rim summit and President Clinton heads to Japan and South Korea.
Across Asia, the Clinton administration is under mounting pressure to act more dramatically--and more generously--to help stem the financial crisis and social unrest that have roiled the region in the last year, toppling several governments and pushing tens of millions of middle-class families into poverty.
Relations with Japan, Washington's closest Asian ally, are unusually strained after months of harsh squabbling over the pace and scope of Tokyo's financial reforms. Washington's attempt to engage North Korea is also under fire because of fears in the region that the Pyongyang regime has too much leeway to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as ballistic missiles.
The acrimony reached new levels Tuesday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit here, and nearly all the anger was aimed at Gore.
Asian leaders, business executives and even some Americans virtually lined up to call Gore rude, insensitive and impolitic a day after he criticized Malaysia's human rights record at a banquet hosted by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Mahathir's ministers predictably denounced Gore for interfering in the nation's internal affairs. But even heads of more friendly governments criticized Gore for picking a political fight in a group of 20 nations plus Hong Kong that has persevered by focusing only on economics.
It was "not the proper forum" for such criticism, Philippine President Joseph Estrada said in an interview. He added that "the vice president should be polite enough to honor the host" of the APEC summit.
Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan questioned the wisdom of dropping a political "bombshell" at APEC. So did Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who told reporters that "politics should not get in the way of APEC."
"It's not New Zealand's style to do a megaphone diplomacy," said Jenny Shipley, New Zealand's prime minister. "Let's not confuse issues here. It's critical that bilateral issues not get confused with APEC."
Japanese government spokesman Sadaaki Numata said that Tokyo also worries about Malaysia's political situation. "We have had some concern, but when we convey that concern, we convey it through private diplomacy," he said.
Indeed, some Americans here for APEC said they were embarrassed by the flap and feared that it might squander an opportunity to show strong U.S. leadership at a time of regional crisis.
"There is a feeling that APEC as an organization can't tolerate discussions of . . . sensitive issues, and if the group was going to make progress it would have to keep the focus on economics," said Michael Mullen, head of the Seattle-based National Center for APEC. "Now, that idea is being tested."
Clinton was a no-show at the APEC summit, an annual gathering he launched in 1993; he stayed home to handle the Iraq crisis instead. The two-day meeting was meant to be a forum to discuss the Asian crisis, economic and technical cooperation, electronic commerce and ways to strengthen the global trading system.
But what is usually a carefully scripted display of unity became mired in fractious debate. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and then Gore, used the forum to urge democratic reforms in the wake of the arrest and jailing two months ago of Mahathir's longtime second-in-command, Anwar Ibrahim.
As the criticism mounted Tuesday, Gore made no apologies for using his speech to salute "brave" anti-government protesters in Malaysia's political "reformasi" movement and to call for greater political freedom as a key component of economic growth.
"That's the American message, and I am proud to deliver it here and anywhere I go," Gore said Tuesday after aides pulled reporters aside and suggested that they ask him for further comment.
In a telephone call from Washington, Clinton praised the vice president's performance, White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said. "It certainly was the same speech that the president was planning to use, and it certainly reflects U.S. policy," Lockhart said.
With Gore readying for a run at the White House, headlines at home on his spat with Malaysia delighted the vice president's staff. Last year, he drew negative reviews for clinking champagne glasses with then-Chinese Premier Li Peng, whose tenure was tainted by his hard-line role during the bloody 1989 crackdown on student protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Senior U.S. officials noted that Clinton made a spirited call for improved human rights and democratic reforms in China at a Beijing news conference in June. Clinton's comments, one official said, were "not necessarily agreeable to his host, though they took his remarks gracefully."
Not so here. Gore's rebuke to a stony-faced Mahathir at a dinner for 1,000 Pacific Rim officials and business leaders ignited a firestorm of criticism. Among business delegates from a dozen countries, no one stood in Gore's defense.
"There's always talk of the 'ugly American' and the big bully," said a Singaporean business executive who asked not to be identified. "And the vice president gave us evidence for that last night."
He and others called Gore rude for rushing out the door without eating or explanation after delivering the keynote speech at the banquet. Gore's aides said later that he returned to his hotel to sleep.
Philip Burdon, a New Zealand businessman who co-chairs APEC's business advisory council, told a news conference that Gore's speech was "highly regrettable" and his departure was "churlish and discourteous." When colleagues from 11 other countries who were beside him on the stage were asked if they disagreed, none did so.
"I feel--and everyone I talk to, including American businessmen, feels--that he was insensitive and impolite," said Jose Luis Yulo Jr., president of the Philippine Stock Exchange. "The feeling was he just went in there to give a sermon and left."
Times staff writer Evelyn Iritani contributed to this report.
* INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK: Asia remains preoccupied by the debate over the merits of economic globalization. A5