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Free Trade or Protectionism? : At summit of Pacific nations, that's the question of the hour

November 15, 1994

With the end of the Cold War, the Clinton Administration has tried to make U.S. economic interests the centerpiece of foreign policy, at least in the Asia-Pacific region. That is smart, considering that Asia is the world's fastest-growing economic region and U.S. trade across the Pacific dwarfs its commerce with Europe.

The second summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, in Indonesia this week, has underlined the changing relationship of the United States with its Pacific trading partners.

On Monday President Clinton won promises from China, Japan and South Korea to keep pressure on North Korea to not develop nuclear weapons. Any reminder to Pyongyang of the forces arrayed against it on this vital issue is worthwhile.

The Administration also said properly that it will raise the question of human rights with China and Indonesia, but in private meetings. Clinton expressed sympathy for the students who scaled the fence of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta and occupied the grounds to protest Indonesian policy in East Timor, annexed by Indonesia in 1976. That was the right approach; Indonesia's annexation of the former Portuguese colony has never been recognized by the United Nations. Although Washington cannot tell its partners what to do, neither must it shrink from the championing of human rights.

Summit conferences with as many participants as the APEC session by nature produce only promises of cooperation, vague timetables and rivers of rhetoric. And that is when they are successful. When things do not go well, we are treated to the kind of awkwardness that resulted at last year's APEC summit when Clinton met with China's president after being stonewalled on human rights.

Yet while the gathering of leaders of 18 nations, plus a plethora of aides, invariably demonstrates frictions as much as common interests, such face-to-face meetings are valuable. That is especially true when two or three heads of government break away to meet privately.

Last year's APEC summit opened in Seattle as Clinton was winning a cliffhanger victory for the North American Free Trade Agreement. He was able to appear as a leader capable of persuading followers of the benefits of free trade. This year he appeared as a President trounced in last week's elections, and White House aides conceded that the other leaders had searching questions about what that meant for their relations with Washington.

That is a natural question, but the leaders of other democracies present in Jakarta know that their fortunes, too, can change at the polls. And even for the authoritarian regimes in China and Indonesia, with aging top officials, there are questions about what course future leaders will take--among them free trade or protectionism.

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