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POWER ON THE PACIFIC RIM : Insider : 5 Forces Shape Asia Policy : With U.S. goals in the region gone blurry, the Bush Administration and Congress are tugged back and forth by conflicting constituencies.

May 21, 1991|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Want to figure out what American policy toward the Pacific Rim is these days? Good luck. You're probably going to need a score card and a calculator.

Any effort to determine Washington's approach to Asia must reckon with the complex and delicate interplay among various American constituencies. Each of those constituencies is important, but none is so powerful that it can override the others.

For more than four decades, figuring out America's stance toward Asia was a much simpler task, a matter of black and white. Or, more accurately, red and white.

From the late 1940s until President Richard M. Nixon's rapprochement with the People's Republic of China, American policy in Asia was aimed at stopping the spread of communism. Later, from the early 1970s until the fall of the Berlin Wall, it focused more narrowly on countering Soviet military power.

Now, with the end of the Cold War, there is no longer any single, dominant force--such as anti-communism or fear of the Soviet Union--that can guide American policy in Asia. And without that dominant focus, the Bush Administration and Congress often seem lost and adrift in the Pacific as they are tugged back and forth by the various constituencies of U.S. Asia policy.

Five of those constituencies are particularly important to understanding the pressures at work on the Administration. Call them the Five Forces of Asia Policy.

The Moneymakers

These include major U.S. companies that export to Asia (grain and food companies, aircraft, aerospace and chemical firms) as well as other American firms that import or retail Asian products (Chinese textiles and shoes, Japanese or Korean videocassette recorders and cars). Lined up behind them are the American middlemen--lawyers, bankers, deal makers and consultants--who provide services for the Asia trade.

As representative spokesman for the moneymakers, we might choose Robert S. Strauss, the Washington lawyer and former Democratic Party chairman who brokered the deal in which Japan's Matsushita bought out MCA and earned a hefty $8-million fee in the process.

The Victims

These are the sectors of the U.S. economy damaged by Asian competition, such as the American steel and auto industries, textile and shoe manufacturers.

The victims also include workers and labor union leaders, who seek to prevent the loss of American jobs to Japanese, Korean and other Asian manufacturers.

In the private sector, the self-appointed spokesman for the victims is Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee A. Iacocca. And in Congress, the spokesmen include House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who recently thundered to a Bush Administration official that he was tired of "watching our industries being wiped out."

Asian-Americans

Only in recent years have Asian-Americans become numerous enough and politically active enough to begin to influence American policy toward Asia. By the 1980s, with the ethnic Asian population growing both in numbers and affluence, several Asian constituencies began to swing their weight.

Over the past decade, Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, amassed a campaign war chest of $1.6 million in part through the novel technique of raising money from a nationwide list of 18,000 Asian-American contributors. Responding to his contributors' concerns, Solarz used his subcommittee chairmanship to press for greater democracy in countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines; he became a staunch supporter and patron of Philippine President Corazon Aquino.

Since the 1989 upheavals in Beijing, Chinese-Americans--joined by the more than 40,000 Chinese students at American universities--have become a solid constituency pressing for human rights inside China.

More recently, Vietnamese-Americans have served notice that they may seek to block any efforts by the Bush Administration to normalize ties with the Communist regime in Hanoi. Indeed, some political analysts suggest that Vietnamese-Americans in California might some day influence U.S. Asia policy in much the same way that hard-line Cuban-Americans in Florida have for decades swayed U.S. policy in Latin America.

The Pentagon

For American military planners, one of the principal lessons of World War II was that the United States must continue its "forward deployment"--that is, the stationing of troops overseas.

Not surprisingly, the Pentagon strives most of all to maintain the U.S. military presence in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Yet, the defense agency's influence over U.S. policy in the Pacific extends well beyond the three countries that host American troops.

Consider the tiny island group of Palau, a U.S. trust territory in Micronesia. For years, it was formally under the aegis of the U.S. Department of the Interior. But American policy toward Palau has been set largely by the Pentagon, which seeks to keep open the possibility of building future military facilities there.

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