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COLUMN ONE : Asia's Tigers Flex Their Muscles : U.S.-China tussle over trade and human rights shows how economic might has given Pacific nations the clout to defy the West. Frictions are likely to keep rising.


BANGKOK, Thailand — Nearly 30 years ago, the United States issued a clarion call against the spread of communism in Asia, and Southeast Asian nations eagerly united behind the U.S. initiative.

But when Washington tried to pull together similar support this year to isolate Myanmar, where human rights violations are rife, the coalition balked.

Thailand said that instead of isolation it would offer "constructive engagement" to the military regime in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong paid a friendly state visit to Yangon, the capital. The six-member Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations even invited Myanmar to send the leader of its military junta to its annual meeting here this July.

More and more, the economically booming nations of Asia are flexing their political muscle in disputes with the United States and the West, especially on such sensitive issues as human rights, freedom of expression and labor rights.

Some call it the Asian Way; others refer to neo-Confucianism or East Asian authoritarianism. A hybrid of traditional Asian culture and 1990s economics, this doctrine champions society over the individual and "family values" over what is seen as corroding Western influences.

Most important, according to its ardent believers in China and the surrounding states of Southeast Asia, economic development requires a period of political stability not possible under democracy--a notion derided by Western critics as justification for tyranny.

Whatever the name, the Asian Way doctrine is a distinctly post-Cold War phenomenon that may spell declining U.S. influence in the region and threatens to raise friction across the Pacific in years ahead.

"With the growth of their economic prosperity, East Asian countries are becoming more assertive politically," said Washington SyCip, a prominent Manila business consultant. "I think you'll see them being more and more forthright and stating what their values are."

Bearing him out are statistics showing the combined gross domestic product of East Asia--Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and the Southeast Asian nations--was 4% of the world economy in 1960; by 2010, it is expected to be 33%.

Samuel P. Huntington, a Harvard professor, speculated in an essay published last year that Asia and the United States were entering a "clash of civilizations" that inevitably followed the clash of ideology that predominated in the Cold War.

"A West at the peak of its power confronts non-Wests that increasingly have the desire, the will and the economic resources to shape the world in non-Western ways," Huntington wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

Is the Asian Way really new? After all, both Taiwan and South Korea boomed economically under authoritarian regimes and have made the transition to democracies.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States was more willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in the name of anti-Communist solidarity. Only since the Cold War ended in 1988 has Washington seemed eager to confront Asian countries with broader issues of democracy and labor rights.

The most dramatic example of Asian muscle-flexing is the debate between Washington and the Communist rulers in Beijing over human rights, culminating in President Clinton's decision, announced Thursday, to renew most-favored-nation trade status for China. The United States had linked continuation of the trade benefits with human rights improvements, but Clinton was forced to make an embarrassing retreat.

When Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Beijing in March, Premier Li Peng warned him that China "will never accept U.S. human rights concepts."

As Christopher expressed outrage at the detention of Chinese dissidents, Li responded by warning that if its trade status is revoked, "the United States will suffer no less than China."

China's economy is booming, with growth at 13.4% last year, and European as well as U.S. businesses are scrambling to enter the market.

Even though China runs a $23-billion surplus with the United States, meaning it would suffer much more from a trade drop, it was U.S. business interests that spoke gloomily about the potential loss of 200,000 jobs if MFN status were revoked--enough to sway the President.

While many Asian countries remain wary of a resurgent China, the U.S. linkage of trade and human rights did not find a sympathetic audience in the region.

"When China becomes powerful in 20 or 30 years' time, there is no reason why China should behave kindly toward the West," Singapore's Goh said when asked about the possible effect of trade sanctions on Beijing. "That's our worry: China may want to flex its muscles, and then it will be a very troublesome world."

He added that Singapore will continue to invest in China no matter what the United States decides to do.

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