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Clinton in Asia Enhanced prestige: Progress on trade, relations with China, defusing Korean tensions.


PRESIDENT CLINTON, his stature enhanced at the Asian summit by his re-election, was very much the leader of an ascendant superpower as he moved to improve relations with China, scored a breakthrough in the U.S. drive to lower tariffs and even provided climb-down room for a North Korea that wasn't on the invite list.

On China, he arranged for an exchange of presidential visits in 1997 and 1998 that could serve as a backdrop for Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization. Implicit was a firmer U.S. intention to separate its concerns about China's human rights violations from further threats of trade retaliation.

In pushing for the lowering of trans-Pacific trade barriers, the president got his 17 fellow summiteers to sign on to his plea to "substantially eliminate" tariffs on information technology by the year 2000. One U.S. official said those quoted words amounted to "tradespeak for zero." But Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir nTC Mohamad said a companion call for "flexibility" meant that if poor nations are not ready for free trade "we will not have to submit."

As for the Korean peninsula, where the potential for war persists, Mr. Clinton got South Korea's President Kim Young Sam to retract his demand that North Korea issue an explicit apology for sending in armed agents last summer. Instead, Pyongyang was urged to make "appropriate" gestures so Washington and Seoul can proceed with peaceful atomic energy development in exchange for the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

As he attended the Manila meeting of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, Mr. Clinton had not only his personal political triumph but a resurgent U.S. economy to increase his diplomatic leverage. Insertion in the APEC communique of a year 2000 date for zero tariffs in the booming computer and tele-communications field could mean higher exports for U.S. companies even if less-developed countries like Malaysia resort to protectionism. On a global scale, the cause for ever-freer trade now has a greater Pacific impetus.

The downside to the uptrend in the U.S. economy is a dangerously high trade deficit that causes trouble in U.S. relations with China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. All need to open their markets. While this is difficult for an unruly if dictatorial China, it is a goal that must be pursued. Mr. Clinton too often allows his administration to indulge in unilateral bombast to appease his protectionist critics, but he has his priorities right in recognizing expanding trade as the best route to a more stable world.

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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