1 December 1997
Be Nice to Uncle Sam
He's done quite a lot for East Asia recently, without much in the way of thanks
By Gerald Segal


President Clinton is unlikely to enjoy meeting fellow leaders of APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum) in Vancouver this week. He will doubtless be berated for failing to do enough to help Asians out of their current economic problems and for fumbling his attempt to get "fast track" trade negotiating powers through Congress. But this whining is the noise of an East Asia that has lost its way. In truth, the United States is being asked to do too much, with insufficient assistance and even less gratitude. The result may be a United States less committed to defending the global order and therefore a poorer and more dangerous East Asia.

APEC became a first-class summit only in 1993, when President Clinton welcomed the region's leaders to Seattle. Since then East Asia has seen a destabilizing rise and fall of great powers and an equally disturbing rise and fall of economic prospects. The result is deep confusion about power and leadership. ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) used to base its claim to leadership on its nations economic prowess. But as bubbles in the currency and equity markets have burst, such a claim now looks hubristic. Many of those Southeast Asians who used to deride the Americans and Europeans as powers in decline now complain that Westerners are not doing enough to assist them. When help is offered, it is quixotically sneered at because it is not an "Asian solution to Asian problems". Japan, the region's premier economy, is still stuttering and therefore cannot assume the mantle of leadership. Tokyo is more prepared than it was to consider closer military cooperation with Washington, but attracted a storm of criticism from the United States and Europe when its Ministry of Finance officials began to explore options for an Asian monetary arrangement that would have undermined the IMF. This is a Japan that can say "yes," "no" and "maybe" all at the same time.

China is perhaps the most dangerously confused power in the Pacific. On the one hand it is undergoing destabilizing economic and social reforms, and is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into an interdependent global system dominated by Western powers. On the other hand, China grows more nationalist and rhetorically assertive, suggesting that it can lead the region in resisting Western rules and norms. The result is a region increasingly afraid of a China that is increasingly afraid of the consequences of reform.

The unpalatable truth is that the region increasingly relies on the United States to maintain order, all the while complaining about its consequences. When it came time to restrain North Korea's nuclear weapons program or deter China from attacking Taiwan, only the Americans were up to the challenge. Most other Asians wanted the jobs done but did not want to help, get in harm's way or even publicly applaud. The Americans--with their European allies--are also the key defenders of the open global economy that makes economic growth in East Asia possible. The United States and Europe drive forward the effort to liberalise trade in financial services and information technology, providing an open market that will be crucial to sustained East Asian growth. And, of course, it is the Americans and Europeans who provide open markets for East Asian exports.

Washington does all this in part because such behavior is in its interest, and in part because it has grown used to leadership. But there is a limit to how much the Americans will do when they get little support, credit or thanks. Americans are right to ask where the Japanese (or the Europeans) might be when crises arise in Korea or Taiwan. The moaners in ASEAN are the most infuriating--at one and the same time, the biggest free-riders on American deterrence of China and defense of the global economy, and yet the quickest to carp.

The challenge for the Asians in APEC is to find a way to keep the Americans honestly engaged in the defense of the open and multilateral global order. American protectionist seems never far below the surface. The president's failure to obtain fast-track authority and the unilateralism of the Helms-Burton Act are all signs of the nationalist and isolationist temptation in the United States. Asians need to help the United States to help themselves. If APEC fails to embrace far-reaching and swift trade liberalization, then Americans could easily become more protectionist and less willing to defend the global order. The United States will certainly be wary of defending Asians against a rising China or a rogue North Korea if it has to do all the heavy lifting itself.

A good place to make a fresh start is with the American insistence that China can join the World Trade Organization only if it meets tough conditions like opening domestic markets and cutting state subsidies. This is in the interest of other Asian countries, and they should say so--they would certainly be the first to suffer if China could get the benefits of WTO membership while still able to undercut their own exports. And APEC's leaders might also recognize the value of America's defense of IMF orthodoxy when insisting on tough conditions for emergency loans to Indonesia. Without such conditionality--which Asians seem incapable of imposing on their neighbors--the region will not reform and grow. Those in Vancouver should also thank President Clinton for keeping the U.S. market open and its dollar strong, even as the American trade deficit grows. Expressing gratitude to Uncle Sam may not always be appealing; but Asians have a lot to be grateful for. If they don't say so, they should not be surprised if Americans draw the natural conclusion.


Segal is the director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.