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California and the West | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

U.S. Sheds Principles for Asian Summit

October 21, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — Something new is happening in Asian politics. For a change, some Asian leaders are beginning to champion democratic values. They are not being pushed to do so by the United States.

On the contrary, the Clinton administration has been more timid in standing up for principles of political freedom than the Asian governments it used to nag. In fact, if the Clinton administration stands for anything in foreign policy these days, it's the idea of having summit meetings--preferably ones than can show the president in a favorable light.

The best example is the administration's effort to prevent the cancellation of a summit gathering of Pacific Rim leaders in Malaysia next month.

Malaysia is not an attractive place to visit right now. Its leader, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has engineered the arrest of his longtime deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, on flimsy sodomy charges after Anwar challenged Mahathir's economic policies and his power.

Anwar, appearing in court with a black eye and bruises, said he had been beaten unconscious while in jail. Mahathir callously tried for a time to suggest that Anwar might have caused his own wounds. Anwar's trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 2.

This would seem to be a clear-cut case of an abuse of power by Mahathir to repress an opposing political viewpoint. Indeed, that is how some other Asian leaders have portrayed it.

In particular, Philippine President Joseph Estrada and Indonesian President B.J. Habibie voiced the strongest possible support for Anwar. The two leaders were defying the long-standing tradition that Southeast Asian governments do not say anything about the internal affairs of their neighbors.

Both men suggested they might not attend the annual summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which is scheduled to take place in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur next month.

Some American scholars and critics contend that President Clinton, too, should try to avoid attending any summit held on Mahathir's home turf.

"In my opinion, the meeting should be moved elsewhere," says Karl Jackson, head of the Southeast Asian studies program at the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies and a former Republican official. "Given the poor treatment and the lack of due process given to [Anwar], it's difficult to sit down there in a normal way."

What's unusual is that, for a change, there is no conflict at all between democratic principles and America's belief in free markets or its commercial interests. This is not like earlier Asian policy disputes over, say, China's trade benefits or America's support for former Indonesian President Suharto. Mahathir is Asia's leading proponent of restricting foreign investment. And the imprisoned Anwar has been a strong champion of open markets.

What has the Clinton administration done? So far, its policy has been aimed at ensuring that the Asian summit meeting go forward as planned in Malaysia, despite the country's political turmoil.

Administration officials argue that these Asian summits are too important to be canceled, and that Clinton has a personal stake in them because he proposed and sponsored the very first meeting five years ago. (He has not always attended, however. During the 1995 U.S. government shutdown, Clinton stayed home.)

Seeking to defuse criticism of Clinton's trip, Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth said in Singapore last week that while the president would go to Malaysia, he would not make a state or official visit there. Roth's efforts may have worked; in recent days, both Habibie and Estrada said they would, however reluctantly, go to the Malaysian summit.

Another senior U.S. official wittily suggested that Clinton would treat Kuala Lumpur as if it were an anonymous pit stop. "This could be a Holiday Inn at any airport in the world," he explained.

Will Clinton meet face to face with Mahathir? Administration officials say they won't ask for such a session, but they leave open the possibility that if the Malaysian host invites in the APEC leaders one by one, the president may show up.

"That is the sort of meeting that would be politically useful to Mahathir," says Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch/Asia.

Underlying the administration's policy is the theory that it is better to let Asian governments themselves take the lead in supporting Anwar and democratic principles. If Clinton voices strong criticism, officials argue, then he will merely give Mahathir a convenient target and a chance to blame the United States.

This is the same justification that the administration has used in the past for doing business with repressive regimes: Don't say or do anything too bold, because that might help the hard-liners who oppose American policy. Taken to its logical extreme, this argument can become an excuse for never doing anything.

In a 1993 speech, then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright said the new Clinton administration would pursue a foreign-policy strategy that "looks to the enlargement of democracy and markets abroad."

Sometimes the administration has pursued the latter goal at the expense of the former. In the case of Malaysia, it seems to have abandoned both.

The administration's current efforts to treat Clinton's trip to the Asian summit as a matter of business as usual shows that it has come a long way, a long way indeed, from the foreign policies, ideals and principles with which it took office.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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