Tue, 09 Aug 1994

U.S. is not sensitive enough about Asia

In policy and business, U.S. tardiness to grasp challenges in Asia hurts image, mortgages future.

By Edward Neilan

SAN FRANCISCO (JP): On each return to America's shores after an absence of several months, a reporter is struck anew by the Eurocentrism of the media in general and the foreign policy- making establishment in particular.

While the rest of American society is busy redefining itself, these institutions continue to be locked into old ways of looking at the world.

It is as if media commentators are indifferent to statistics which show that U.S. trade with Asia is already outstripping that with Europe, that China is the United States' fastest growing trade partner to match its own impressive domestic growth and that more and more Asians will be flying by 2000, thus dominating that industry's statistical and profit patterns.

In this city, where one of four Americans is of Asian descent, the situation on Asia-awareness is somewhat better than elsewhere in the country. But not by much.

It was fitting that the Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade, Jeffrey Garten, chose the city to warn in a speech on Aug. 1 that the United States is losing ground in the booming China market and that "strengthening commercial ties with Beijing is a major priority to help create trade-related jobs in the United States".

The Clinton administration official warned that other nations -- Germany for one example -- are making attractive long-term loans in China that are capturing large and increasing shares of the market with strong implications for the future. The U.S., meanwhile, is mortgaging its own future by allowing others to get a head start.

The syndrome of "not-knowing what to do about Asia" seems to start at the White House. The highlights of American policy toward mysterious North Korea have appeared to be the recent visits to Pyongyang by Rev. Billy Graham and former President Jimmy Carter, known during his own administration for wanting to pull U.S. troops out of Korea.

Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci has seemed to be carrying the U.S. policy ball on Korea as Secretary of State Warren Christopher has said virtually nothing on the subject. Ambassador to Korea James Laney is seldom heard from in Seoul, particularly in comparison with his astute and outspoken predecessors Donald Gregg and James Lilley.

The administration's problems with China and Japan are even better known. Beyond trade issues with China there is the matter of Taiwan which has rough edges for the United States. Beyond the familiar frustrations with Japan on trade and market access, there is the matter of political stability and shifting views there on the U.S. - Japan Mutual Security Treaty, a policy bulwark in the region if there ever was one.

But instead of probing these issues which bear strongly on America's future with Asia, there is a Washington and media preoccupation with the coming invasion of Haiti. The suspicion is that in an election year, coming to grips with Haiti is safer than coming to grips with Pyongyang, or Tokyo, or Beijing.

And yet, the Yoshi Hattori shooting in Louisiana (gun control) and the Michael Fay caning in Singapore (human rights, corporal punishment) have been Asia-related incidents that captured public attention and imagination. They caused considerable self- examination among Americans, causing some even to admit that there may be things the U.S. can learn from Asia.

(The O.J. Simpson murder case threatened to further shut out attention on Asia in the U.S. press until the appointment of Japanese-American Jugde Lance Ito assured the bizarre tale of regular space on front pages in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore).

The closing of a half-dozen major American newspapers' bureaus in Tokyo in recent years and reduction in others for the wrong reason -- "Too expensive!" -- is yet another sign of the relative decline in American perception of Asia.