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Pacific rift: Fall from miracle to meltdown leaves the United States facing the prospect of a new kind of global divide

Time was when the United States feared that they would fall to Communism. Now, the newly rich 'Tiger' economies of Asia could become 'dominoes' once again as worried investors withdraw their money and threaten them one by one with bankruptcy This new domino effect could prove every bit as divisive as the last, and shatter some American dreams to boot.

Five years ago, Bill Clinton became the first United States president to attend the annual conference of the 18 economies known collectively as Apec - the Asia- Pacific Economic Co-operation grouping. Describing them as economies rather than nations got around the delicate problem of China's objections to Taiwan being treated as a sovereign country and the imminent reversion of Hong Kong to China.

But it also highlighted the primacy of economics over politics in a region where politics can be a sensitive subject. Unlike the European Union, Apec - formed in 1989 - set itself no longer-term political objective and stuck faithfully, if vaguely, to its brief of economic co-operation. Now, economics could prove its downfall.

This year, by coincidence, the summit was held in Vancouver, barely 50 miles into Canada from the US city of Seattle where President Clinton had presented the United States as a Pacific power and natural leader of the fearsomely dynamic "Pacific Rim". But the mood was quite different. Then, Mr Clinton had looked forward with enthusiasm to a "Pacific century", in which Asian dynamism would provide the engine for a new wave of global prosperity. This week, as his Secretary of State put it, rather more dramatically perhaps than Mr Clinton might have liked, there were fears that the "Asian miracle" could become an "Asian meltdown".

Meltdown, probably, will be avoided. The United States has helped to arrange a series of International Monetary Fund (IMF) rescue packages that could serve the duel purpose of staving off bankruptcy in places as far apart as Indonesia and South Korea, and forcing economic and financial restructuring measures that would be very much to US tastes.

This week's Apec summit, however, saw cracks opening up between groups of Apec members that could eventually thwart the whole US project for an American-style economic regime in the Pacific. US ambitions to lead the grouping were challenged by Asian calls for recognition of their special identity that cast doubt on the whole concept of the Pacific Rim as a geographic and economic entity. As if this was not enough, there were hints that a battle of ideology could soon be joined that was universally thought to have ended with the collapse of Communism.

President Clinton went to Vancouver intent on preaching that the way out of the financial instability that has beset Asia's "Tiger" economies in recent months lay through freer markets and sound national economic management. But he hit two snags. Deep-down, not all Apec countries accepted that IMF-style reforms offered a remedy for their problems. Some even mooted an "Asian solution" that would be more flexible and consensus oriented than the fiscal rigour demanded by the IMF.

Although the US ensured that this suggestion came to nothing, Mr Clinton's qualifications as an advocate for the free market and the IMF were not what they might have been. His free-trade credentials were damaged by the refusal of Congress to give him "fast-track" authority to negotiate international trade treaties. And even as he recommended troubled Asian countries to approach the IMF, the US was refusing to pay $3.5bn (pounds 2.1bn) into the fund.

Worse, the countries experiencing the most acute economic difficulties - Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea - were the ones that followed the US model the most closely and had tied their currencies to the dollar. China, with an economy furthest from US practices in every respect, said with wry satisfaction that it was unaffected by the turmoil among its neighbours and expected to remain so.

The weakening of these US-orientated countries, whose political standing - like that of Japan - derived largely from their economic strength, could diminish not only their influence in the region, but also that of the United States. If the US economy continues to flourish, it could reorientate its investment in Asia to take advantage of weaker regional competition from Japan and South Korea, but this holds risks. It could force it to readjust its military priorities in the region; it could also accentuate the differences (political, economic and geographical) between North America, South America and Asia - the very differences that the Pacific Rim concept was supposed to blur.

No less difficult for the US are the questions that the Asian Tigers' problems raise about free-market capitalism and Western-style economic management. Korea, along with Thailand, has insisted that its current problems originated with an indisciplined private sector that over-borrowed and from a poorly regulated financial sector that left the government exposed.

Risk-taking in the private sector, however, lies at the heart of a free market. Taken to their logical conclusion, the complaints of South Korea and others lead to the position articulated most forcefully at Vancouver by the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad.

Mr Mahathir, who has long propounded a theory of "Asian values" - according to which Asians are deemed to value Western-style human rights less highly than government-fostered stability and economic growth - told business leaders that since the fall of Communism, the pendulum was "in danger of swinging too far and making market forces such an article of faith that anything done in its name cannot be questioned".

Pursuing the crusade he launched after Malaysia fell victim to currency speculators earlier this year, he called for tough cross-border regulation of capital transfers and a new partnership between the private sector and governments. And in a tirade that provided a worthy follow-up to European complaints about unwarranted American "economic triumphalism" at the Group of Seven summit this summer, Mr Mahathir said that suffering caused by recent South-East Asian currency devaluations was greater by far than the suffering caused by corruption and poverty before.

Attacking the power of unbridled markets, he said: "As much as government can become corrupt when invested with absolute power, markets also can become corrupt when equally absolutely powerful. We see the effect of that absolute power today, the impoverishment and misery of millions of people and their eventual slavery."

Mr Mahathir is often dismissed as a maverick. But with the wreckage of free markets strewn across Asia and still spreading, his views have a following that Washington may yet have to reckon with.