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Washington, Tokyo U.S., Japan Must Get Their Acts Together

Undermined by scandal--economic and personal--U.S. and Japan risk losing their leadership roles in Asia.

September 01, 1998|TOM PLATE | Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at UCLA. E-mail:

HONG KONG — High in the isolated mountains of China, where no telephone lines or satellite dishes or McDonald's reataurants connect this neglected world to modernity, people live a subsistence existence, protecting their faces from the sun's harsh effects by packing them over with mud. Unlike most of the rest of Asia, this tribe has not benefited from globalization and thus has no sense of loss from the current economic turmoil. These "mud people" possess one other characteristic that differentiates them utterly from other Asians: They have no idea who Bill Clinton is, what a U.S. president does or how he or the American presidency might possibly matter in their lives.

But for the rest of Asia, Clinton and his office matter enormously. Says Nellie Fong, a key member of Hong Kong's powerful executive council and a civic leader who organizes humanitarian Lifeline Express programs of medical relief aid for poor rural communities across the border in mainland China: "America is getting stronger and stronger, even more influential. But America, having achieved this position, needs to maintain a sophisticated international involvement. After all, America is the only country with the power and influence to bring nations together for a common purpose."

Much like the American people (if U.S. polls can be believed), Asians generally give Clinton as president high marks. His summer summit to China received mostly great notices across the region. U.S. efforts to engage an unpredictable and politically juvenile North Korea, which just threw its rattle out of the crib by test-firing a missile into the Sea of Japan, are well noted. And Clinton's economic team, particularly Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, are well respected. Indeed, when Rubin and Greenspan meet Friday with Japanese Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa in San Francisco to review the status of Japan's economic reform, much of Asia will be watching and hoping for the best.

But Asians also tend to chafe that Rubin, like Miyazawa, will come to that table representing a government that doesn't really have its act together. The Japanese Parliament has stalled the Obuchi government's modest reform program, and the U.S. Congress dangerously drags its collective feet on approval of a modest new line of credit for the International Monetary Fund aimed at accelerating the Asian recovery. And Clinton remains imprisoned by a sex scandal.

Many here are now beginning to doubt that Clinton can go the distance. Says James Tang, a political science professor at the University of Hong Kong, trying to seem charitable: "As long as Clinton remains in effective control and is implementing his policies, he will be OK. But if the whole scandal drags on and effective administration is impossible, then, yes, he should resign. Just think of a major crisis coming up and Clinton can't make a move."

Many Asians ruefully refer to America's "Puritan streak" for putting the president and the world in such a position. For many of them, the American legal and media system is too uncompromising and irreverent to the office of the presidency.

And for many, U.S. foreign policy, even today in the midst of the Asian financial crisis, too often tends to tip toward Europe and old concerns. That's why House Speaker Newt Gingrich's advice that Clinton cancel this week's Moscow trip made a lot of sense here. Whatever the motives behind the White House's decision to jump into that Russian political volcano, many here worry that the president is wagging the tail of the wrong dog, looking toward Europe when the presidential attention, at this moment at least, needs an Asian focus.

Though the ruble's crumble has jarred investors worldwide last week, Russia is not remotely in the same economic league as Japan, which Clinton snubbed in July by returning from his China summit without a tarmac stop-off, handshake and photo-op for a country that represents 20% of the world's economy. People in Asia will start to look to Beijing when they think Washington is looking the other way.

This is not a bad thing for Asia as long as Washington and Beijing aren't working at cross purposes. So far, they haven't been on the economic question. Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission Chairman Anthony Neoh, who monitored last week's brutal and unprecedented battle between the government and outside speculators, predicts that China will please Washington and Asia by stubbornly holding its currency at current values and not move to cheapen it--a decision that many worry would plunge Asia, if not the world, into recession.

But ugly reality is pressing ever-harder on China. Last week, Gareth C.C. Chang, a U.S. aerospace executive who travels to Asia often, was worrying that the current pervasive psychology of fear now gripping Asia will, "before long, force China to devalue and push the Dow down another 1,000 points. But there is a silver lining: Maybe this will finally energize the Japanese."

Maybe. On Monday, the Dow plummeted more than 500 points. Even if China holds on, can America, undermined by presidential scandal, and Japan, stymied by legislative gridlock, get their acts together in time to push back history, which appears to be taking a course toward world recession, if not worse?

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