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Clinton's Tour Could Mean A Tilt Toward Asia

International Outlook


Ever since the end of the cold war, the U.S. has been groping for a new role in East Asia, the world's most dynamic economic region. As the perceived Soviet threat to the area seemed to evaporate quickly, the U.S. withdrawal from the Philippines last year fueled fears that a full-fledged strategic retreat was getting under way. All the talk of creating a North American trade fortress suggested that the Americans were withdrawing economically as well.

On his six-day journey, President Clinton tried to change all that. He proclaimed a comprehensive U.S. approach to Asia that could have more lasting significance than his squishy trade deal with Japan (page 24). In speeches, notably at Tokyo's Waseda University, Clinton showed a keen appreciation of Asia's interdependency with the U.S. and vowed not to let trade disputes with Japan poison overall Pacific Rim relations. "I believe the Pacific region can and will be a vast source of jobs, of income, of partnerships, of ideas, of growth for our own people in the United States," the President said.

Could it be that Clinton will put Asia on an equal footing with Europe? Ronald Reagan used similar rhetoric a decade ago but never followed through. White House officials say Asia is now a high priority and that Clinton believes it offers the best prospects for exports that create quality U.S. jobs. "If you look at just China, it could be the biggest economy in the world in 20 years in terms of purchasing power," says Robert E. Rubin, head of the National Economic Council.

HAPPY TALK. Asian officials from South Korean President Kim Young Sam on down were pleased by Clinton's pledges to stick to current Asian treaties and maintain a U.S. military presence in South Korea and Japan, and they liked his tough talk about North Korea's nuclear program. If Clinton had indicated that America might reduce its role in the region, many Asians would have worried that China, Japan, and other local powers would be tempted to fill the ensuing vacuum, spawning conflicts and endangering growth. With China's massive buildup a major worry, Asians are happy to have the U.S. shift its role from nuclear protector to regional balancer. "Clinton has shown that the U.S. should stand firm," says Richard K. Yang, chairman of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei, Taiwan.

There are other signs of shifting U.S. policy. Clinton's decision in June to renew China's most-favored-nation trading status and his movement toward lifting sanctions against Vietnam (page 46) show a preference for expanding trade over waging ideological warfare. Washington also is signaling a change in approach to the Association of South East Asian Nations--Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Singapore. The U.S. now supports their efforts to create a regional security forum. ASEAN's six Foreign Ministers will meet in Singapore in late July, with regional security first on the agenda.

The next test of the U.S.'s interest in Asia will come when it hosts a meeting of 15 Asian heads of state in Seattle in November. Clinton wants to use the Organization for Asian-Pacific Cooperation (APEC) as the forum. If so, APEC could become the keystone of an expanded bridge across the Pacific.

Ultimately, the question is whether Clinton's flurry mf Asian initiatives was timed to make his trip a public-relations success or reflects a long-term commitment. Presidents have long made grand gestures toward Asia, only to relapse into Atlantic-oriented policies when they got home. But economic imperatives now may keep Clinton focused on the Pacific.EDITED BY STANLEY REED Owen Ullmann in Tokyo and Pete Engardio in Hong Kong

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