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Commentary | CALIFORNIA PROSPECT

A Presidential Presence for Asia

Bill Clinton could make a real difference by paying more attention to the economic crisis in the East.

January 13, 1998|Tom Plate | Times columnist Tom Plate is a UCLA professor in policy and communication studies. E-mail: tplate@ucla.edu

SHANGHAI — Dear President Clinton: I am writing to you from Asia, one of the two regions of the world that urgently requires more of your attention. The other one is Capitol Hill. For Asia, let me pass on what a prominent Asian leader told me privately last week: "Settling Korea alone will not be enough. It is a very tough situation in East Asia at present. The U.S. has got to openly take the lead for a solution." Notwithstanding all the hullabaloo one hears about self-reliance and face-saving, more and more Asians now accept that your involvement may be essential to arresting this frightening economic slide.

I recognize that there are people in your inner circle who have been strongly advising you to keep your distance from this crisis. They worry that should it all explode--say, Japan's banks start rolling over one after the other like dead ducks and worldwide recession looms--the wreckage will land at your feet and despoil your second term. Clearly, you are beginning to see that this advice is entirely misconceived. You were right to have dispatched that team of U.S. officials, headed by Treasury No. 2 Lawrence Summers, on a tour of Asia this week. But sending out aides won't be enough. You'll need to get personally involved, as in your helpful long- distance telephone call last week to Indonesia's President Suharto. You'll need to exploit your personal network of contacts developed from your (unfortunately infrequent) trips to Asia, attend more high-level crisis meetings, get more obviously hip-deep in the mess. For if global recession does materialize on your watch, you'll be blamed anyway. Reflect on your memorable 1992 campaign mantra: It's the economy, stupid. Well, these days, it's the global economy, stupid.

In Asia, people tend to focus on America's record of relative indifference to this region (compared to our near-obsession with Europe and Russia) and complain that we have been less alert to their troubles than Mexico's. Indeed, it is sometimes paranoically suspected that America derives pleasure from Asia's pain. After all, by forswearing immediate intervention when Thailand's currency came unglued over the summer, America missed an opportunity to limit the spread of the economic flu across Southeast Asia--and now into East Asia--while that was still theoretically possible. But many Asians are just as aware that their problem is being competently addressed by so painfully few of their leaders. Suharto, they notice, has been trying to sleep his way through the crisis; Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been trying to insult his way out of Malaysia's hole; Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, though staring down the gun barrel of a banking collapse, seems to want to steer giant Japan out of trouble with a program that seems dangerously close to approach-avoidance.

Your personal involvement is needed now not only because the crisis requires it but also because the totality of the U.S. response cannot simply be placed at the doorstep of the International Monetary Fund while the American media show you playing golf and petting your new dog. The president personifies U.S. foreign policy; even at your inattentive worst, Mr. President, you are, compared to the cold castor oil medicine of the International Monetary Fund's bailout conditions, the kinder, gentler face of the monied West.

For this crisis and for the rest of your term, you need to work harder to nurture good relations with Asia's best and brightest. Malaysia's Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim, for instance, is a relative voice of reason. So is Donald Tsang, Hong Kong's razor-sharp financial secretary who has been counseling troubled Asian economies to try to meet as many of those stern IMF reform goals as possible while fighting hard to protect the Hong Kong dollar. You should get to know better Zhu Rongji, China's capable financial potentate. And South Korea's President-elect Kim Dae Jung seems to be calming Korea's roiling financial waters by extolling reform as necessary penance for past errors.

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