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US firms need to tap more into Asia

HEAVY handed and missing the mark is how Senator John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts characterizes the Clinton administration's policy toward Asia. ``We have antagonized governments, consumers, and businesses alike,'' the senator said candidly at a business symposium sponsored by the Japan Society of Boston on Friday.

Speaking to a room full of business people eager to tap into the potentially huge Asian market, the senator added that US companies had been strangely slow to create the presence in Asia that the opportunities warranted. ``There's an enormous sense that America is casual and indifferent about the area,'' he said.

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In the 1980s, American business left the Asia-Pacific field largely to Japan, with only the biggest US corporations such as IBM, MacDonalds, and Citibank investing longterm in the region. But Japan's troubled domestic economy and Japanese companies cash-flow problems have put the damper on further investment, analysts at the symposium agreed. And this offers US companies fresh opportunities to regain some market share in the area.

Analysts offered several pointers for US companies:

* Enter into ``strategic partnerships'' whenever possible; these are flexible business arrangements with local companies or business people that avoid much of the legal hoops joint ventures and 100 percent-controlled operations present.

* Consider China as one of the best sites for manufacturing, because of its massive and inexpensive labor force. But don't overestimate China's market potential. Only about 200 million of its 1.2 billion people live in a market economy.

* Conversely, don't underestimate the Southeast Asian market. Indonesia, for example, has a per capita income of $550 a year, which could label it as too small for capitalization. But the top 10 percent of the population - 20 million people - earn close to the Swiss per capita income.

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