The most important thing leaders of 15 major Asian trading nations did at last week's Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum was arrive.
The Seattle forum can only become more important in years to come, and APEC's 40 percent share of world trade will only grow. The possibilities are enormous, exceeded only by the need, and nearly matched by the obstacles. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, a nationalistic politician, helped focus debate by boycotting the summit to protest the North American presence and favor an all-Asian alternative.
That said, nothing conclusive happened at the summit or could have happened. President Clinton presented a vision of trans-Pacific cooperation driven by U.S. national weakness and needs, rather than U.S. strength and noblesse oblige. President Jiang Zemin of China would not likely hold power after the death of his mentor, Deng Xiaoping, by caving into U.S. demands for import liberalization, protection of intellectual property and human rights for Chinese dissidents. Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa is trying to make coalition government of Japan work by enacting fundamental electoral reforms. Obliging U.S. demands to reduce its trade surplus is not first on his agenda.
Still, these greenhorns to international statesmanship, and such others as Mr. Clinton, President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines and Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada, got their feet wet and took each other's measure, particularly at their casual pow-wow amid the nature preserve of Blake Island in Puget Sound.
A fascinating use of the APEC forum was Mr. Hosokawa's plea to Mr. Jiang to persuade fellow Communists Kim Il Sung & Son, the reclusive dictators of North Korea who were not invited, to avoid a nuclear crisis by continuing to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection of its suspected nuclear weapons development. Mr. Clinton and South Korea's Kim Young Sam (another greenhorn) have so far got nowhere on this; nor is Japan an indifferent spectator.
Free trade across the Pacific, on the model of what Western Europe has achieved, is an idea whose fruition is at least a decade off. The Pacific Rim countries are in different stages of economic development and political maturity. This summit will go down as the one in which almost everyone gave lip service to trans-Pacific free trade -- the necessary first step in an arduous process that would benefit humanity if it materialized.