BANGKOK, Thailand — Winding up a four-country swing here Thursday, a U.S. congressional team left behind the message that East Asia does not want to hear: A protectionist tide is running in America.
"Unless we work to improve market access for all nations, the United States will almost surely enact more protectionist barriers," Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) told a closing news conference.
Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and 13 other committee members visited Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong before coming to Bangkok, where trade tensions with Washington have been high for the past year.
"We could have avoided coming to Thailand," Rostenkowski declared. "We could have just gone ahead and enacted legislation that had an adverse effect here." But, he said, the trip had given both sides a better understanding of each other's trade problems.
Furthermore, Rostenkowski admitted, it allowed the House members to do some "arm twisting" with developing Asian nations, enlisting their help in opening up Japanese markets. About 30% of Thai textile exports go to the United States, he said, while Japan takes only 2%.
Several Thai officials objected to the approach, saying it dodged the issue of Thai-U.S. trade problems.
"Our textile products and apparel were not designed for the Japanese," insisted Chirayu Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya, leader of the Thai delegation. "We will have to redesign the color and patterns before we can sell our products to the Japanese, and this takes a lot of time."
The congressmen, however, declared that the United States has provided growing markets for Asian exports for 15 years or more and expects help now that it is staggering under a runaway trade deficit.
"We have been generous with our markets," said Rep. John J. Duncan (R-Tenn.). He ticked off a long list of examples: The United States buys 41% of Thai exports of integrated circuits, 53% of its canned pineapple, 68% of its canned tuna, 32% of its shrimp and 58% of its jewelry.
The Tennessee lawmaker also reminded Thailand that his tobacco-growing constituents cannot understand the country's ban on imported cigarettes, a trade barrier that has bred a high-cost, inefficient tobacco monopoly here.
A key member of the U.S. delegation was Rep. Ed Jenkins (D-Ga.), whose support of textile-quota legislation in the last Congress has made him a symbol of U.S. protectionism in Asia.
The so-called Jenkins bill was an emotional issue throughout East Asia, and the mild-mannered Georgian was sometimes pictured as a monster in the press. His measure, passed by Congress but vetoed by President Reagan, would have restricted apparel imports to 42% of the U.S. market, forcing a sharp rollback in Thai textile exports to America.
"Certainly there will be some trade bill" in the new Congress, Jenkins said, adding that it is premature to say whether he will sponsor it or whether it might restrict or roll back Asian textile exports to the United States.
"I grew up in a working-class family," he told a Thai reporter. "My mother worked in a textile mill. So I'm familiar with the problems of working people.
"I intend to look after my people. That's what I was elected to do."
The delegation departed with a memorandum from the Thai government detailing its position on trade relations with the United States, where Thailand last year achieved a surplus for the first time. The memo read in part: "In Thailand's perception, the U.S. is becoming increasingly protectionist and thus, slowly eroding her leadership in the global move for a more open world trade system free of trade restrictions and distortions.
"It also views with deep concern that U.S. public opinion, frustrated by the seemingly insoluble trade deficits with the U.S.'s major partners, has turned indiscriminately against all imports, fair, competitive or otherwise."