BY ARGIRIS MALAPANIS
During a 12-day tour in southeast Asia and the Pacific, U.S. president William Clinton flaunted Washington's military and economic might to push the trade offensive by the U.S. rulers against their imperialist allies - who are also competitors - and against semicolonial nations in the region.
At the conclusion of the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, the 18 heads of state present signed a declaration calling for a drastic reduction of import tariffs on computers, computer chips, software and other telephone and electronic equipment by the turn of the century. If such an accord were implemented, it would give a greater advantage to U.S. manufacturers.
Clinton and the U.S. media hailed the non-binding agreement as a victory for "free trade." In this case Washington, with a mountain of protectionist measures on its record, is pushing to advance its economic domination by knocking down trade barriers its competitors have erected.
"Every year we sell $100 billion in information technology," Clinton told U.S. embassy employees in Manila, the Philippine capital, after the APEC meeting. "Imagine if we went to zero tariffs in the entire world, what that would mean to America in exports." Prior to his departure from Washington, the U.S. president described as the "thrilla in Manila" what he anticipated to be a sweep of his proposals at the APEC summit.
The November 26 Washington Post quoted several U.S. business executives expressing their elation about prospects for fatter profits as a result of Clinton's "polite arm twisting."
"I thought he'd get on base, but I never expected he'd hit the ball out of the park," said Michael Maibach, vice president for government affairs at Intel Corp., the world's largest maker of computer chips.
"We are on the way to wiring the world," crowed William Archey, president of the American Electronics Association.
Big-business dailies published in other imperialist capitals painted a somewhat different picture.
London's Financial Times, for example, said in its November 26 issue: "Pacific Rim leaders yesterday bowed to pressure from U.S. president Bill Clinton by backing a planned free trade deal for information technology products, but almost immediately undermined their endorsement by openly disagreeing over it." The Times story said the APEC summit "produced few noteworthy advances towards the grouping's goal of freeing all trade and investment in the region by early next century."
The meeting took place at the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines, which Washington was forced to abandon in 1992. It was the centerpiece of Clinton's tour, which included stops in Hawaii, Australia, and Thailand. Trade ministers of the 18 governments represented at the APEC forum, had failed a week earlier to reach an agreement endorsing the abolition of protective tariffs, a form of tax imposed on imported goods.
The statement Clinton extracted called on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to complete an accord on information technology products "that would substantially eliminate tariffs by the year 2000, recognizing the need for flexibility as negotiations... proceed."
The 123-member WTO, established in January 1995, is scheduled to hold its first meeting in mid-December. Washington pushed for the formation of this international trade association. But since its founding, the U.S. government has challenged the organization's rules at least three times. It has ignored, for example, WTO settlement procedures in a conflict with Japanese companies over auto parts, choosing instead to threaten Tokyo with sanctions. A recently issued WTO report lambasted new U.S. laws penalizing companies in third countries that invest in Cuba, Iran, and Libya. The report also said Washington's unilateral implementation of trade measures "remains a source of tension."
While the U.S. rulers often present themselves as the foremost advocates of so-called free trade, they don't talk about their simultaneous protectionist policies. The U.S. government maintains 8,000 taxes on foreign goods, with some as high as 458 percent, according to James Bovard's book The Fair Trade Fraud. Since 1980, Washington has negotiated more than 170 bilateral accords to restrict imports. Quotas agreed to affect up to half of world trade. The U.S. government maintains 3,000 clothing and textile quotas, as well as limits on autos, sugar, dairy products, peanuts, beef, and machine tools. All of these measures are designed to bolster the profits of U.S. capitalists.
As Washington has gained an edge on productivity in manufacturing computer and other high-tech products, it is trying to pry wide open the markets of its competitors. This U.S. bullying does not sit well with many, even with regimes allied with the bastion of American imperialism.
Goh Chok Tong, prime minister of Singapore, which will host the December WTO meeting, said APEC's statement was ambiguous. "It can be interpreted by [APEC] members as anything they want it to be," he said.
Following the Manila summit Mahatir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister, said that the 2000 deadline has no binding force.
At the same time, China's foreign minister Qian Qichen
said negotiating a timetable or concrete changes in tariffs is
not a job for APEC. "The APEC statement's practical effect is
limited," noted an article in the November 26 Wall Street
Journal. "If the WTO doesn't conclude the agreement, the APEC
nations will be under no obligation to end the technology
tariffs by 2000."
Tense relations with China
While in Manila, Clinton met with China's president, Jiang Zemin. The two heads of government pledged to exchange state visits in the next two years, which would be the first since former U.S president George Bush traveled to Beijing in 1989. Most big-business dailies acknowledged that Clinton accomplished little to nothing in easing the U.S. government's tense relationship with the Chinese workers state or getting a more profitable access to the markets of the most populous country of the world.
"Administration officials had hoped that President Jiang Zemin might signal a willingness to begin serious negotiations on moving the Chinese economy toward open and free markets in which foreign firms could compete on equal footing," said the November 25 Washington Post. "From all outward signs, the deal was never struck."
Beijing is not willing to make the necessary concessions imperialist powers demand, such as dropping import duties on foreign goods, in order to join the World Trade Organization. "For China, any significant market opening holds the almost certain prospect of throwing millions of Chinese out of work at thousands of... government-owned enterprises that still employ two-thirds of that country's urban workers," the Post story said.
The niceties between the U.S. and Chinese presidents aside, Clinton made clear that Washington will not back down from its longtime support for a resolution at the United Nations condemning Beijing for "human rights violations." Zemin for his part reiterated Beijing's longstanding opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
"Only a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. once again is faced with a self-defined rival to its sole superpower status," wrote Karen Elliot House in an opinion column in the November 26 Wall Street Journal. House is the international president of Dow Jones. She said Washington "faces a new bipolar relationship not unlike that between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. after World War II."
The author continued, "China screams `containment' even when the U.S. pursues its minimal national interests - opening relations with Vietnam, extending a defense treaty with Japan, sailing the Seventh Fleet near Taiwan."
Earlier this year, U.S. navy warships passed through the strait separating Taiwan and mainland China, as Beijing and Taipei stepped up military maneuvers off the coast of Taiwan. The conflict between China and Taiwan has been a growing concern for Washington, as Beijing used military exercises to reaffirm its right to reunite with Taiwan, a right Washington acknowledged in 1972.
During a speech to Australia's parliament in Canberra November 20, Clinton reiterated Washington's commitment to maintain its sizable military forces throughout Asia and the Pacific. The Pentagon has 100,000 troops deployed in the region.
"It's taken us years to convince people, at home and in
Asia, that we really do see economic security and national
security as a seamless whole," U.S. commerce secretary Mickey
Kantor said in Manila.
Scandals and inflated stocks continue
Despite the rosy assessment by the U.S. media of Clinton's accomplishments in Asia, and a continued upturn of the U.S. economy, the various allegations of financial misconduct against the U.S. president and his aides persisted throughout his trip.
During a press conference in Australia, Clinton was bombarded with questions by reporters about charges that Clinton received illegal funds during his election campaign from an Indonesian businessman.
This scandal-mongering becomes more pronounced as part of the decline of world capitalism, which is mired in depression conditions, and is a thermometer of the inability of the U.S. rulers to resolve the problems facing the owners of capital - declining profit rates and sharper competition from imperialist allies. These problems are also reflected in the rising worries among U.S. ruling circles about a possible sharp downturn in the economy or even another crash on Wall Street.
"Today's financial euphoria can't last," was the top headline of the opinion page of the November 25 Wall Street Journal.
"The conventional view is that, to be successful in his second term, President Clinton will have to continue to reduce the federal budget deficit, which means putting Social Security and Medicare on sound footings," wrote author Henry Kaufman, president of a New York-based money management and consulting firm. "While these are worthwhile objectives, they pale beside a risk he cannot control: a stock market crash, with all the financial and political consequences it will spawn."
The same issue of the Journal featured a front-page article that led with the following sentence: "If you were [Federal Reserve chairman] Alan Greenspan, wouldn't you be worried about the soaring stock market?" The Dow Jones industrial average surpassed 6,500, an all-time record, the day that article appeared.
"A rising stock market is usually reassuring," the Journal
story said. "But one that rises a lot faster than economic
fundamentals warrant is vulnerable to sudden decline. It isn't
the rise in stock prices that worries the Fed; it's the fear
that the higher the market goes, the faster it will fall."
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