SANTA BARBARA — Look beyond current U.S.-Japan trade tensions to see the extraordinary rise of Pacific trade and investment over the past two decades, perhaps the greatest economic success story of this century.
Starting with Japan's "economic miracle" of the '60s, the extraordinary growth figures of Korea, Taiwan and the countries in Southeast Asia symbolized a triumph of technology, modernization and hard work over traditional ideas of geography and some historical European assumptions. More than anything else, the demonstrable competence and creativity of Asians in business and technology--and here we include the belated modernization drive of the People's Republic of China--has upset three centuries worth of stored conventional wisdom about Western superiority in these areas.
This success story, however--not to mention the very concept of the Pacific Basin--embracing the East Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand, the Pacific islands and North America--is by no means an Asian matter alone nor is it purely economic. Now that gross national product growth figures have been coming down and trans-Pacific economic brawling becomes the order of the day, we would do well to remember the real significance of Pacific Basin community to its members. (Please see related interview with Henry A. Kissinger on Page 2.)
To argue, as some of our fashionable economists do, that the whole Pacific idea "is out," now that the high growth has abated, is to throw out a pretty big baby along with the bath water.
To begin with, the primary factor in Pacific growth has been the United States. Development and booms in all the Pacific countries--Japan notably included--has been fueled not merely by the immense buying power of the free American marketplace, but by American exports, investments, education and ideas. The export and sharing of America's intellectual properties over the past 30 years in itself has played a vital role in building Pacific prosperity. There is also a political side to the Pacific growth story. The peaceful conditions of good trading have been guaranteed by American power. Since Vietnam, the Pacific diplomacy of the United States has been conciliatory rather than coercive. Unlike the ill-fated SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organization, in case you forgot) of the John Foster Dulles era, ASEAN--the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations--was founded 20 years ago as a voluntary association of five equals--Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand--for mutual protection against military attack as much as for mutual economic development and modernization.
The ASEAN countries (now joined by Brunei) have a long way to go before becoming anything like an economic community. But they furnish a model for other developing nations, all the more striking for the sharp diversity of cultures and traditions represented.
Free-enterprise business has been the guiding principle of the Pacific Basin economies, even though often restricted by development-minded bureaucracies. Marxists and doctrinaire socialists have been conspicuous by their absence from the growth scenarios. Where rigid communist planning prevailed--as in North Korea, communist Vietnam and, until the late '70s, in the People's Republic of China--the consequent economic ossification has served as a living example of what not to do.
It would be wishful thinking of a high order to classify all the nations around the Pacific Rim as democracies. Varying degrees of authoritarianism exist among them, albeit mixed with democratic forms. Yet economic success has brought rising expectations with it, and these are in turn fueled by the pervasive and continuing educational and cultural influences coming from North America. All this has exerted its own pressure for greater political and social freedom.
Another political factor should be mentioned. For the past decade and a half, the three historic Pacific powers--Japan, China and the United States--have been at peace. More, they are cooperating (and also competing) in assisting the fitful but measurable modernization of the People's Republic of China.
The Soviet Union has at last shown signs of getting into the Pacific act. General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev's speech in Vladivostok last summer declared a desire to participate in Pacific trade and development. The change in attitude is surely the result of the Pacific community's visible progress.
There are at least six common denominators in that success. The first is the most obvious; modern advances in telecommunications and transportation have made once-vast oceanic distances shrink. This has in turn produced new attitudes toward trade and industry, many of them made in Tokyo. There are, for example, the Japanese concept of international marketing, the stress on a new "information society" and the location of heavy industries at communications centers rather than near the sources of raw materials.