Sino-US talks dominate Apec summit

SEATTLE - If any US city is prepared for the dawning of a new Pacific age, it is Seattle, where President Clinton arrived yesterday for an informal summit with Asian leaders whose economies are the most dynamic in the world.

United States' trade across the Pacific is already 60 per cent higher than across the Atlantic, and Seattle is one of the main beneficiaries. Here Japanese is the second language; Boeing, the city's and the nation's largest exporter, sells most of its aircraft to Asian countries.

Seattle's newscasters are eagerly telling their public about the might of Apec - Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation. The organisation, launched four years ago by Australia, includes the world's two largest economies - the US and Japan - and the fastest-growing, China.

Also among Apec's 15 members are East Asia's up-and-coming economic powers - South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. The body accounts for more than half the world's economic output and two-fifths of its trade. For all that, the annual gathering of Apec's trade and foreign ministers would have attracted little attention if Mr Clinton had not proposed adding on an informal gathering of the region's heads of government.

The importance of this week will lie in today's bilateral meetings between leaders, including the first Sino-American summit in five years, and tomorrow's 'retreat' on nearby Blake Island.

It is hoped that a common approach can be reached on how to deal with the world's most dangerous nuclear maverick, North Korea. Mr Clinton will be pursuing the question with the leaders of Japan and South Korea as well as China's President, Jiang Zemin.

If Seattle is remembered, it will be because Peking and Washington agree to a fresh start. But unless Mr Clinton and Mr Jiang can achieve some insight into the other's goals, the notion of Asia-Pacific co-operation will remain theoretical.

Trade, the official reason why everyone is here, will be the focus of much rhetoric but little substance. There are few supporters apart from Australia for the ambitious proposals of an 'eminent persons' group, which calls for Apec to be transformed into an Asia-Pacific economic community. The US will back efforts to conclude a Gatt world trade deal by 15 December.

The problem for those who talk about the coming Pacific century is that virtually nothing unites the region beyond the desire to make money and to have America maintain the military-political balance.

Not even free trade is seen as automatically a good thing: many of the smaller nations represented in Seattle fear that the US is seeking, possibly in concert with fellow giants Japan and China, to force open their markets. The most vociferous opponent is Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who is boycotting the meeting.

Overcoming such suspicion is what this meeting is all about, in Mr Clinton's view. He hopes to foster the same instinct to consult one another that exists between the US and Europe. And the more Americans talk to Asians, the more a view commonly heard in East Asia is likely to rub off: that Europe is a region in decline.

(Photograph omitted)

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