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Asian Talks Put U.S. Ties on Track

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 25, 1996; Page A01

After more than a year in which the United States has lurched through a series of crises and confrontations in Asia, President Clinton's encounters here this weekend showed that he has succeeded in steering U.S. relations with the region back to normal.

That is the good news. The problem lies in what counts as normal.

The annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which ends later today, was a reminder that normal for this region is a synonym for exasperating. Recent conflicts in China, Japan and the Korean peninsula have all stepped back from the edge, yet the historic frustrations the United States has faced for years in all three are solidly in place.

China remains the most vexatious of all. Clinton's announcement that he and Chinese President Jiang Zemin agreed to exchange state visits showed that, eight months after Clinton dispatched two aircraft carriers to the area to keep China from threatening Taiwan, a measure of trust and civility has been restored between Beijing and Washington.

But Clinton's 85-minute session with the Chinese leader also followed the old rituals. Clinton noted long-standing U.S. complaints about China's human rights policies and its repression of political dissidents; Jiang dismissed the complaint in the usual fashion, saying China was interested in the "economic rights" of its citizens.

Clinton's meeting with South Korean President Kim Young Sam was likewise a mixture of the hopeful and the harrowing. The Korean peninsula has crackled with military tension since September, when a North Korean submarine allegedly carrying infiltrators ran ashore off South Korea. Most of the North Koreans were killed.

Clinton and Kim agreed to a joint statement pledging that South Korea will seek to reduce conflicts and will continue to support a 1995 agreement in which North Korea pledged to suspend a budding nuclear program in exchange for a multibillion-dollar package of international assistance. But U.S. officials made it plain that they had labored considerably to get this statement, which also says North Korea must take undefined "acceptable steps to resolve the submarine incident to reduce tension and avoid such provocations in the future."

The September flare-up, U.S. officials said, stands as an unsettling reminder of how fragile the truce remains on the Korean peninsula, where the United States has 37,000 troops.

Finally, Clinton's session with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was tinged with ambivalence. Both men have recently won reelection, and U.S. officials said their session was filled with banter and good cheer — a clear indication that the U.S.-Japanese relationship has improved markedly from a year ago, when it faced a serious rupture because of the rape of a young Japanese girl in Okinawa at the hands of U.S. servicemen stationed there.

But aides said that Clinton also pressed Hashimoto to take measures to stimulate Japan's economy to create more consumer demand and reminded him of the two countries' inability so far to reach new trade agreements covering insurance and civil aviation. These frustrations have been a constant: Japan's economy remains heavily protected, and U.S. negotiators have achieved progress only by slogging their way through tedious talks one industry at a time.

The forum is ending with a joint statement by the 18 participating governments that includes a pledge to reduce trade barriers for high-technology exports. The statement was a partial victory for the United States in its goal to have the forum endorse a repeal of all tariffs on computers, software and telecommunications equipment by the end of the decade. Earlier haggling by delegations to the forum yielded only a vague draft statement on tariff repeal with no firm deadline. But after Clinton intervened with other APEC leaders in one-on-one talks and at an informal dinner Sunday night, press secretary Michael McCurry said, the president won agreement for expressly mentioning the year 2000 in the final statement as the target for removing barriers. But administration officials acknowledged that the statement is worded more softly than the United States — which expects to profit handsomely from high-tech exports — had wanted.

For all the last-minute maneuvering over trade, U.S. officials plainly regarded Sunday's encounter with Jiang as the pivotal event of the trip, and they judged the session a success.

"Clearly, the relationship has stabilized and gained momentum from where we were last spring," said Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, adding that the Clinton-Jiang meeting was the culmination of months of "steady work at various levels" below the two presidents.

"At the same time," Lord said, "we've been very careful today . . . to make clear that serious problems remain. You're not seeing any euphoria or complacency or naivete."

In addition to old tensions caused by China's repression of civil liberties and U.S. military support of Taiwan, there is a problem of more recent vintage: the future of Hong Kong.

The United States wants China to preserve Hong Kong's political system and its robust free market when it takes over the British colony next year. But, in an early sign of potential trouble, China already has announced it is rebuffing one U.S. preference and is replacing Hong Kong's elected legislature with an appointed one.

Clinton ran for president in 1992 sharply condemning China's human rights record and accusing the incumbent, George Bush, of coddling dictators by not putting more pressure on Beijing for reform. But Clinton eventually continued the Bush policy of not linking China's trade status with its rights record.

The announcement of the exchange of presidential visits in 1997 or 1998 — the dates are still to be negotiated, although Vice President Gore will go to China in the first half of next year — brought renewed criticism from human rights activists, including Human Rights Watch/Asia, which sent a representative from Washington to the Philippines for the conference.

[White House national security adviser Anthony Lake said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that China's record on human rights is "not very good, and we will continue to press them on it. We will continue to pursue our interest in human rights, like our interests in opening the Chinese market and getting good Chinese performance on nonproliferation issues."]

A leading analyst of China policy, political scientist Kenneth Lieberthal of the University of Michigan, hailed the exchange of visits as "exactly the direction we should be going."

While conflicts are inevitable between the two nations, he said, high-level visits can strip the relationship of some of its raw emotion, leading to more progress over the long term. Since Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, every president except Jimmy Carter and Clinton has traveled there, although there have been no state visits since China crushed protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"That is abnormal and harmful when you're dealing with two major countries who inevitably must know each other well," Lieberthal said in a telephone interview from Ann Arbor, Mich.

Clinton is to leave Manila later today for a state visit in Thailand.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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