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Commentary | CALIFORNIA PROSPECT

Seattle's Good Reasons for Insomnia

Washington state sees its prosperity on the line with the Asian crisis.

July 21, 1998|TOM PLATE | Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at UCLA. E-mail: tplate@ucla.edu

SEATTLE — They're getting sleepless in Seattle. For so many glorious years, this port has been chockablock with commercial ships from Japan, China and other Pacific Rim nations, bringing the state the best or cheapest, exporting to Asia wide-ranging wares from apples to jetliners. Trade props up one in four jobs in Washington state--the highest ratio in America. Last year state exports bungeed skyward by almost 25%--four times the growth of even export-healthy California. The state's principal employer, Boeing Co., is a big exporter to China; Washington-based Microsoft, virtual conqueror of the globe, has been double-clicking all over the Asia-Pacific region. But Boeing and Microsoft and many people here are unnerved, for Asia is in trouble. Although no other city in America worries as much or as alertly about crises transpacific, the question arises: How many cities, besides Seattle, are destined to soon become sleepless?

Asia has become the incredibly shrinking market. China, struggling not to plunge the region into further disarray by cheapening its currency to become more competitive, has seen its exports to Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia virtually evaporate. The economy of Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, is coming apart; by year's end, nearly half of its population will be living below the poverty line. Heretofore aloof Hong Kong and Singapore, putatively Asian-flu proof, are scared; Malaysia is moaning. Then there's giant Japan, the globe's second largest economy and Washington's No.J1 export market: It's twice as large a trader with Washington as Canada, the state's second biggest partner. But Japan is in recession again, people are saving harder than ever and no one is buying much of anything.

No wonder people here--including Gov. Gary Locke, son of a Chinese immigrant grocer and the first Asian American governor of a mainland U.S. state--watch the unfolding drama of Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's failure as intently as if it were a local gubernatorial race. Locke, preparing to pack his bags for a trade trip to Japan and Taiwan, explained: "When Hashimoto indicated he was resigning, it concerned everyone here. We're very concerned about Asia. So much of our economy is based on international trade. Such a huge segment of that is with Japan and China. People [here] are much more cognizant of the economic issues; we know we're an intimate part of the global economy." The Yale-educated politician admits he is less concerned than the other Washington, the one on the East Coast, with Chinese missiles. He sees more pressing threats in the "Asian flu," China's shaky economy and the eventually corrosive effect of hidden U.S. racism on Asia-Pacific relations.

In fact, this 48-year-old Democrat and his many supporters here would greatly appreciate it if Congress would cut back on the partisan malarkey and expedite the new International Monetary Fund bailout of the worst hit Asian nations. In that other, faraway Washington, lawmakers may chafe over alleged security compromises in U.S. cooperation with China's civilian satellite launch program. But here the punch-up with China is over counterfeit apples. In rural Yakima County, angry growers claim that mainland China's farmers peddle their apples across Asia by cleverly but deceptively packaging them with popular Washington state brand name labels. Here, people have the early warning alert on for possible new export barriers to their bountiful cherries--a delicacy that people in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan eat up. And in Seattle, where the population is roughly 10% to 12% Asian American, people do get agitated about allegations that Beijing clandestinely contributed to the Clinton campaign--but not for the same reason as the other Washington. Many people here honestly believe that the scandal has special animus only because the alleged bad guys and girls are Asian. Says Locke, persistent and consistent on this point: "It's just plain wrong to tar all Asian Americans with the same brush. The truth should come out, but there seems to be much more attention these days to questionable political contributions from Asians than, say, people from Israel or Europe."

Locke's voice deserves a wider hearing nationally. Seattle may be the first to start fingering the worry beads, but it should not be worrying by itself. The other, more insular Washington back East needs to look more to the Pacific-facing state of Washington for balance and perspective, and for the real on-the-ground concerns that immediately affect people's lives, paychecks and futures. Protectionist emotions, whether in Washington, D.C., Asia or Washington state, must be contained. If the Asian flu worsens and infects America, and U.S. politicians react by blaming Asia and Asians for its problems, by erecting new barriers to trade, by sowing new seeds of Asian American distrust, by setting China-U.S. relations back in time, by bashing Japan again instead of working with it, then Seattle won't be the only sleepless place. All of America may well develop insomnia--and face the nightmare of a national recession that was at least partly self-induced.

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