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NEWS ANALYSIS : TRADE TALKS IN THE PACIFIC : Trade Proving to Be Island of Calm in Sea of Troubles Faced by Clinton : Politics: Embattled President can point to a string of successes despite disappointments in other areas.


JAKARTA, Indonesia — With Washington in turmoil and his party racked with post-election anguish, President Clinton's trip to distant Indonesia this week might seem a masterpiece of ill timing.

It might, except that its chief subject, trade, has gradually emerged as one of the strongest elements in his foreign policy--and one that figures to be even more vital to him politically in the next two years.

As health care reform has come unstrung and some other parts of his domestic agenda have bogged down, Clinton and his economic team have ground out a string of large and small wins on trade and laid the groundwork for others. Last week's Democratic electoral rout promises to give trade even more prominence for the embattled President as one enterprise he can pursue partly without congressional assent.

To date, the Administration has successfully pushed passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, increased government promotion of U.S. exports, advanced some regional economic initiatives and generally raised the diplomatic prominence of trade issues. If December brings the congressional adoption of the massive General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Clinton will have grounds for some serious boasting.

Indeed, some experts say trade is the one area of clarity and resolve in a foreign policy that has often been fogbound.

In this eight-day trip, Clinton hopes to push the transpacific trade group called the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to a general timetable for free trade. And next month he will head to Miami to talk to Latin American leaders about trade liberalization at the Summit of the Americas.

Clinton has been championing the notion of the big payoff from greater trade since his campaign days: It was, in fact, the fifth paragraph of his campaign announcement speech in the fall of 1991.

Now it is routinely referred to in speeches as a wellspring of hope in an American future that otherwise looks all too bleak. His trade strategy, he said last week at Georgetown University, is a "strategy to help every American family, every American worker . . . from the worldwide growth and prosperity it will bring."

All this is fraught with irony.

In 1992, Clinton built his challenge to President George Bush's foreign policy around assertions that Bush was not wary enough on NAFTA, was too cozy with the Chinese and was a pushover in the face of the Japanese trade juggernaut.

Now when trade issues clash with other concerns, the others give way.

The Administration decontrolled high-technology exports in 1993--in a big boost for California--though the Pentagon feared the move could put sophisticated weapons in dangerous hands. It renewed most-favored-nation trading status for China last May, despite the objections of human-rights advocates.

In Monday's meeting between Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, trade and North Korea topped the agenda, while human rights was again present but secondary. "They stuck to the strategic elements of our relationship," as one senior Administration official put it.

Clinton arrived in Jakarta on Sunday as some East Timor dissidents were demonstrating, and others rioting, to publicize their complaints of Indonesian government oppression. But while Clinton has carefully assured the world that in Wednesday's meeting with Indonesian President Suharto he will discuss human rights, it was also clear that he does not want these concerns to derail the economic summit or relations with the world's fourth-largest nation.

Another irony lies in the fact that the most immediate beneficiary of all these efforts--American business--has remained stubbornly resistant to Clinton's efforts to win its approval. "This Administration has bent over backwards for business on trade: NAFTA, big tax breaks, export promotion, you name it," said one aide. But the response from business is only bitter rejection, he added.

Some analysts believe that if the Republicans continue their gradual drift toward protectionism, Clinton could actually begin capturing some of their supporters because of his trade-opening efforts. But that has yet to happen.

And while he hasn't won business over, his free-trade tilt has caused plenty of problems with his core constituency of labor, as well as countless non-unionized workers who see open borders as a threat to their jobs, their future and their children's future.

Clinton recognizes how hard it is to sell the blessings of freer trade to nervous American workers. "For too many of our people, trade appears to be a gale-force wind, just another threat ready to blow away the prospects of a stable job at a good wage," the President said Thursday.

These days, he's crowing about how the North American trade pact boosted exports to Mexico 20% in the first six months after it was passed, creating as many as 100,000 jobs. And he's insisting that trade efforts must be coupled with efforts to help American workers compete in the new economy.

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