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Japan fills S.E. Asian trade gap left by 'absent American'

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In Southeast Asia today the ''ugly American'' stereotype has given way to another exaggerated image - the ''absent American.'' The American trade, investment, and foreign aid presence, so preeminent before the US with drawal from Vietnam, is now seen as waning.

In its place is a budding, peaceful Japanese presence. A new Japanese-initiated Asian ''co-prosperity zone'' has emerged some 40 years after US marines defeated Tokyo's World War II bid to enforce economic and political domination over most of Asia.

Today Japan leads in outside aid, investment, exports, and joint-venture enterprises. Japanese trading companies have aggressively set up ship in many parts of Asia.

This development is an important aspect ofd the complex, changing US-Japan relationship. As Washington presses to open Japan's markets to US goods, US firms make only sporadic efforts to match Japan's profitmaking Southeast Asian operations.

Some observers feel that by failing to invest in and trade with newly industrialized countries (NICs) of Southeast Asia, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, the US neglects an opportunity to help compensate for its trade deficit with Japan.

Meanwhile a triangle of Japan, China, and other parts of Asia (including the NICs) may be forming. Harrison Brown of the East-West Center in Honolulu has pointed out that, unless American performance improves, the US could be frozen out of an emerging Pacific trade goup. These issues were discussed at a recent New York conference sponsored by the Asia Society and the Japan Society.

''If US-Japan trade imbalances are to be sustainable, then Japan's surplus within East Asia ought to be reduced, indeed reversed,'' Dr. Lawrence B. Krause, an American economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington, told the conference.

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