Human error derails Clinton's Asia policy

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BY ALMOST any measure, the Clinton administration's much ballyhooed Asia policy is in shambles. What was supposed to be a shift away from the traditional European axis towards the fast-growing economies of Asia has instead become a boiling-point. It is hard to identify a country in the region that does not bear a grudge against the US: Japan, because of its hard-line market-opening measures during a fragile coalition government; China, for its insistence on linking human rights to trade policy; the two Koreas, for the escalating confrontation over nuclear weapons; Malaysia, for its tough stance on labour rights; and Singapore, for trying to dictate policies in the region. Even Taiwan, normally staunchest of US supporters, has distanced itself over China policy.

Of course, there are recriminations, and the search for a scapegoat is on. The spectacle of the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, being publicly snubbbed in Peking after a tongue-lashing from Chinese authorities will not soon be forgotten in the US business community.

Richard Brecher, an official of the US-China Business Council, said last week that the administration should not expect business help in its efforts to extricate itself from the human rights trap. 'US businesses cannot be agents of foreign policy without exposing themselves to retaliation by the Chinese government,' he said.

The harsh criticism of the administration's performance resulted in a familiar Washington pattern: Teflon bureaucrats proclaiming no-stick blame. From the White House National Economic Council to the Commerce and Treasury departments, the message was the same: none had sufficient input into what all agreed was a misguided decision.

Conveniently, the finger has been pointed at the State Department, and particularly at Winston Lord, the patrician Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

Mr Lord, a former ambassador and veteran China hand, is blamed for singlehandedly creating a foreign policy mess. Never mind that he chaired a senior interagency group that also included the cabinet economic departments that could presumably have spoken up. The unofficial word is that he prevailed, tipping the balance in favour of morality over trading profits, thus threatening US economic security objectives.

One wonders where the White House was during these deliberations. Might there not be some truth to the rumours that mid-term election concerns played a crucial role as opinion polls revealed that 60 per cent of Californians favoured a tough human rights stance?

In any case, the buck seems to have stopped at Mr Lord, who only a few months ago was hailed as the architect of the administration's Asia- first policy and its decision to end the trade embargo on Vietnam.

Mixed messages, it seems, are one of the hallmarks of the Clinton administration's foreign policy. This was the administration that intended to put economic security interests on a par with more traditional foreign policy security objectives. In a sense, this has happened: the very public 'get tough' stance against Japan represents the triumph of the investment bankers and other commercial appointees in the administration, who have grown tired of dealing with Japan's no-action rhetoric. And yet the morality issues that defined the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys' of the Cold War still play a very important role. Malaysia, for example, is one of the growth economies that has been targeted by the administration's trade and economic experts as a key player in the East Asia miracle, yet other officials still flog it for poor labour rights policies. Is anyone in the administration actually in charge?

One of the key misconceptions exposed by the insistence of the strong arm of the US administration on 'get tough' policies is the belief that such sanctions actually work in the new world order of global trade flows. China is clearly not concerned that US withdrawal of its most-favoured nation trading status for human rights violations will have much of an impact. Given China's spectacular growth over the last decade, there are so many countries bidding for its favours, particularly among the relatively stagnant industrialised countries, that it has cause to feel smug. Indeed, most studies show that the US economy has much more to lose, which is why the Chinese leadership sees the MFN threat as less and less credible.

This is another truism of the post-Cold War era that the US has yet to learn: sabre-rattling without real intent and without support from other large players will not work. There is little support in other countries for the current US position on trade sanctions. If conventional wisdom prevails, and the world's growth centres actually undergo a dramatic shift, from the industrial to the industrialising countries, this trend will only intensify.

Canada's actions last week are a good illustration of the lack of Group of 7 solidarity on these very important points. Five years ago, when protesting Chinese students were gunned down in Tiananmen Square, Canada was the first to join the US in diplomatic condemnations. But last week, the new Canadian government under Jean Chretien made a break with the US over China's human rights policies. Mr Chretien said that Canada's trading opportunities in Asia were crucial to its economic recovery and thus to its foreign policy.