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Energized by NAFTA victory, Clinton arrives in Seattle for Asian trade talks


SEATTLE -- A suddenly more powerful President Clinton moved his economic drive from his own hemisphere to Asia yesterday, hoping to ease trade and investment obstacles within a $13 trillion trans-Pacific market of 2 billion people.

Arriving in Seattle for a meeting with Asian leaders, he also hopes to build pressure to revive a sickly world trading system by confronting protectionists in Europe with the loss of potentially vast new markets in the Americas and Asia.

Mr. Clinton will preside over the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, a grouping of North America and 14 Asian nations that is expected to press for a successful end to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) talks in Geneva and endorse a long-term vision for expanded commerce.

"Ultimately this meeting is about the jobs, incomes and futures of the American people," Mr. Clinton said after arriving at a cheering rally at Boeing Field here. He called for it to produce "a long-term, disciplined partnership for growth and opportunity."

Flushed with success on the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Clinton administration now has public attention focused where it wants it: on the president's dream of job growth through trade and his skills at persuading other leaders in an informal gathering.

"By taking the courageous step of opening trade in our own hemisphere, we have the economic, the political and the moral standing to make the case that that ought to be done throughout the world, that America is serious about lowering trade barriers and promoting growth in our country and throughout the globe," the president said as he left Washington, D.C.

He will be the host at a loose brainstorming session on nearby Blake Island tomorrow that marks the largest gathering ever of Asian and North American leaders.

Yesterday, the group grew larger with the admission of Mexico ** and Papua-New Guinea and a promise by APEC ministers to admit Chile next year.

U.S. officials see this weekend's meeting as the second of a three-stage attack to expand the U.S. stake in world trade.

Following the House's passage of NAFTA and a productive APEC meeting here, the administration hopes European powers will press France to drop agricultural barriers that are a central obstacle to the successful completion of the Uruguay Round of GATT talks in Geneva by the Dec. 15 deadline.

Wednesday's congressional vote confirmed that the United States "is able to deliver on agreements negotiated with other parties," according to Hong Kong trade representative Tony Miller.

The stakes are high. Over the next decade, Asian countries are expected to spend an estimated $1 trillion on basic infrastructure -- ports, bridges and utilities -- and the United States wants part of that work.

But the euphoria carrying Mr. Clinton to Seattle will take him only so far. For the United States, APEC offers more long-term promise than short-term payoff.

While U.S. trade with Asia is half again as big as trade with Europe, the United States imports more than it exports and is lagging in securing a strong economic foothold in the world's most rapidly growing economies there.

"U.S. trade and investment with Asia is growing absolutely, but relative to other forms of Asian trade and investment -- Japanese trade and investment [and] intra-Asian trade and investment -- the U.S. role is shrinking," says Washington economist Paula Stern, who warns that "the U.S. relative role is in danger, I believe, of becoming marginalized."

As the United States has lagged, Asian countries have adjusted to each other's systems to mutual benefit, shifting labor-intensive industries as individual economies grew more sophisticated.

As a vehicle for expansion, APEC is not yet a serious organization. A so-called "eminent persons" group led by U.S. economist C. Fred Bergsten aims to make it one, but its far-reaching report isn't even totally embraced by the United States, let alone APEC as a whole.

The group is urging APEC in three years' time to fix a date for achieving a goal of free trade in the Asia-Pacific region. The United States opposes forcing the decision as early as 1996.

The Bergsten report also urges the launching of a new set of global trade negotiations if the Uruguay Round is completed, along with expanded cooperation on investment codes, dispute settlements, and antitrust, anti-dumping and environmental policies.

Some members, particularly Southeast Asian nations, fear the push toward totally free trade, worrying that the United States would come to dominate the region.

APEC members are also divided on how strong a statement to make to urge a successful GATT round and are expected to produce a statement that will just "move us an inch or so forward," a U.S. official said.

Asians are already ambivalent about the North American Free Trade Agreement, fearing that the new zone will keep out their exports.

The flip side of Mr. Clinton's added leverage on his Asian trading partners is widespread uncertainty in Asia over how NAFTA will affect its economies.

"We hope it will be GATT-consistent," said Kim Sam Hoon, special assistant to South Korean Foreign Minister Han San Joo. "We hope it will not negatively affect [North America's] outside trading partners."

In addition to deep trade frictions with Japan over market access, the United States also has political problems with China -- now the world's third-biggest economy and pushing toward second place -- that could undermine the whole effort to expand trade with the region.

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