Go west, young president: Robert Elegant has advice for Bill Clinton as he prepares to meet his Asian counterparts

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FRESH from his tussle with Congress over the North American Free Trade Agreement, President Bill Clinton is going to Seattle on the West Coast of the United States to take a hand in a far more complex game with even higher long-term stakes: the forum and market rather clumsily called Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec), which takes in the fastest-growing economies in the world.

The centre of gravity of US foreign policy has for decades swung like a pendulum from Europe to Asia and back again. Washington has recently been put off by the intractability of European problems such as former Yugoslavia, and, as well, by the European tendency to demand bold American initiatives and then reject the initiatives the US comes up with.

So the Clinton administration is now looking to Asia, where both the challenges and the likely rewards are greater than they are in Europe, which seems to shut the US out. The pendulum will continue to swing back and forth but will swing farther towards Asia.

A decade ago, Los Angeles overtook New York as the country's busiest port. The flag follows trade. Asia is a go-getter and Americans gravitate towards go-getters more than to ex-go-getters, as Europe appears to them.

Since the days of the open frontier Americans have heeded the advice of Horace Greeley: 'Go West, young man]' Looking far to the west, they see across the Pacific Ocean the region that Eurocentric geographers called the Far East. That region is America's new frontier, its Far West.

Thinking Americans living west of the Mississippi - and many living east of that great river - are preoccupied with the Pacific Basin. The countries on the western rim, from South Korea to Indonesia, will soon be the world's biggest producers and markets. Add the weight of the United States and Canada to the balance, as well as a rapidly expanding Mexico, and the Asia Pacific region will unquestionably be the heavyweight of the 21st century.

East Asia engages Washington's attention because its dynamic economies are shaping the post-war era. Moreover, Americans have shed much blood along the great arc from Korea to Australia. American relations with the two chief states of the region, China and Japan, are heavily burdened with history and emotion. A third country, Vietnam, is seen through a veil of anger, sorrow and guilt.

But the most dramatic and, potentially, the most useful conjunction in Seattle is Mr Clinton's scheduled meeting with Jiang Zemin. Mr Jiang is chairman of the Communist Party, which is clinging to power, as well as president of the People's Republic of China.

Though unlikely to produce any spectacular result, their meeting is vital. Certain apparent concessions have been prepared by both sides so that both politicians will benefit at home from the demonstration of their weight on the world scene. Mr Clinton wants promises that China will behave better at home. Mr Jiang wants the United States to stop telling China to behave better at home. Neither will get all he wants, but each will give the other a fillip.

Just meeting will do the trick. Mr Jiang will demonstrate to his swarm of domestic critics on both the left and the right that previously strained relations with the US, the most important country in the world, are now much improved. The standing of the much-criticised Communist Party that Mr Jiang titularly heads will also be improved by the demonstration that a central authority is badly needed to deal with outside powers.

Mr Clinton will affirm his position as an international statesman because the US assigns so much weight to China. His position is hardly unquestioned. Mr Clinton's foreign policy has so far been more disaster than triumph in the eyes of even his fellow Democrats.

His China policy now looks as if it had been drafted by the Grand Old Duke of York. Determined to force the extension of human rights in the imperfect totalitarianism of the People's Republic of China, Mr Clinton attacked Peking verbally and economically. The last two or three weeks, however, he has been marching his troops down the hill again. One quid pro quo could be Chinese pressure on North Korea to be more conciliatory regarding development of nuclear weapons. Washington is deeply concerned that continuing development of nuclear weapons could break the truce on the Korean peninsula. Yet the quid pro quo is hardly a sacrifice for China. Who really thinks Peking wants to see war and nuclear explosions in Korea?

Mr Clinton now stands in danger of replicating both the virtues and the errors of George Bush's China policy. Keeping diplomatic, commercial and cultural channels between the two countries as open as China will allow has resulted in the sapping of Peking's centralised power. By trading with China and investing in China, the United States is stimulating the adoption of free-market measures. But the leaders of the Communist Party are determined to remain in power at any cost - as the massacre in Tiananmen Square demonstrated. Mr Clinton would be foolish to allow himself to be manoeuvred into appearing to back that leadership as uncritically as did Mr Bush.

While China will never be a liberal democracy, Washington would be well advised to continue to be critical of human rights violations there - and to accelerate the launching of Radio Free Asia, which could hold a mirror to China's society for China's people, much as Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe mirrored the Soviet Union and the East European client states.

Another danger is China's push into South-east Asia, its political and economic ambitions backed by a People's Liberation Army that is undergoing complete refurbishment. From the Spratly Islands lying between the Philippines and Vietnam in the east to Burma in the west, China is seeking to reassert its former position as the paramount power. Moreover, the Chinese, who never peddled nuclear technology or missiles abroad when they were orthodox Marxist-Leninists, now do so as convinced 'open marketeers'. That trade is dangerous.

The cloven foot also shows in Hong Kong. China has continually thundered against much-delayed (by some 50 years) attempts to give the colony's people some say in their own governance before Peking takes over. To depreciate the colony, the Chinese are touting Shanghai as a financial and commmercial centre that will soon make Hong Kong a backwater. But, of course, it is not the skyscrapers or the motorways, which Shanghai is emulating, that have given Hong Kong its enormous vitality. The colony's economic miracle is due to the ability, the daring and the greed of its entrepreneurs.

China, particularly South China, is now the world's fastest growing economy - primarily because Hong Kong and Taiwan have lavished capital and talent on a nation where labour is cheap and markets seem inexhaustible. Native Chinese entrepreneurs, still operating under severe political constraints, can hardly surpass those outsiders.

The US is no exception to the rule that foreign policy in democracies is shaped by domestic imperatives. Mr Clinton naturally keeps a wary eye on his shaky domestic constituency. One can only hope that he is also influenced by the imperatives abroad for American interests. He might keep three thoughts in mind.

First, not everyone can be or wants to be exactly like Americans. There is therefore no point in attemping to turn Asians into little Americans by insisting on their enjoying every last one of the rights Americans enjoy. Liberal representative democracy is unlikely to break out in Asia today or in the future. Second, the US can none the less act as a force for the betterment of political as well as economic conditions. Gentle pressure can encourage partial advances. Total change is, however, virtually impossible, and pressure for radical change will only impede partial change. Finally, the United States must serve its own interests in Asia. If it does not remain strong militarily and commercially, it will have no influence at all.

Though unlikely to produce any major accomplishments, the Seattle meeting of Apec heads of state and government could be extremely helpful as a new opening - if those three principles are remembered.

(Photograph omitted)