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Clinton Heads for Asia, Seeking American Jobs And Approval at Home

PRESIDENT Clinton, traveling this week to a Nov. 15 summit of Asia-Pacific nations, will take with him plane loads of American business leaders eagerly awaiting the results of a White House push to open markets in the world's fastest growing economies.

The stakes are high for Mr. Clinton, both for a possible reelection bid in 1996 but also for United States plans to form a loose trading bloc out of 18 nations that span the Pacific.

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At meetings in Bogor on the Indonesian island of Java, Clinton will champion the interests of US exporters - who are the chief contributors to US economic growth - in creating a regional free-trade zone among the members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping.

``We consider this the most promising regional economic organization,'' says Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Numbers reveal why.

US producers send 30 percent of their overseas sales to Asia. Last year, almost 3 million Americans - one out of every 50 workers - produced goods bound for the region, according to US Labor Department statistics.

And over the next five years, Asians are expected to spend a staggering $1 trillion on infrastructure, much of it on imports. US firms are scrambling to supply the Pacific nations with telecommunications, power generation and civil aviation equipment, and other needs.

The more lucrative contracts they win in these sectors, the greater the payoff both in terms of employment quantity (official US estimates equate $1 billion worth of exports with 20,000 jobs) and quality (higher skilled, better paying work).

Kenneth Brody, chairman of the US Export-Import Bank, just returned from China where he met with top bureaucrats and bankers. There and throughout the region, he says, ``the competitive posture of American firms is better than it has been in 30 years.''

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Some Asians are indicating a strong preference for US products. Indonesia's ambassador to Washington, Arifin Siregar, indicates that his and other Asian governments that are experiencing dynamic growth and will be needing enormous imports over the coming decades would be more inclined to award contracts to APEC countries, such as the United States, rather than those outside the group.

``I think we could assume that they would like to have it,'' says the ambassador and former trade minister of the world's fourth most populous country. ``Let's say special consideration will be given to the member countries....''

In what may be the largest foreign investment in Indonesia, Exxon Corporation will pour some $40 billion into a liquified-natural-gas project. Many more deals, including General Motors and Ford assembly plants, are in the making.

California, Illinois, Louisiana, Washington, New York, and other states with big export portfolios are highly dependent upon Asian markets. Many have set up aggressive marketing operations to boost their sales and to maximize US jobs.

It helps when Washington does its part, too. Earlier this month, for example, McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation, which had beat out other foreign bidders for a $1.6 billion deal with the Chinese, amended its contract in order to do the production in the US rather than China.

The result is guaranteed work for thousands of highly skilled aerospace workers in Long Beach, Calif.

Commerce Secretary Ron Brown crafted the revision during his trade trip to Beijing in August. Within a 12-month period, Secretary Brown will have gone to most of Asia's major markets. And Brody expects to spend 75 percent of his travel time in Asia.

APEC is not without its detractors. It has met strong resistance from American labor unions and other groups that say freer commerce with Asia will threaten US jobs with a flood of cheap goods produced by low-income labor.

And, says Etienne Reuter, the head delegate to Hong Kong from the 12-nation European Union, ``some Europeans see APEC as an instrument that the US might use to its advantage.''

``Some Europeans and other competitors felt that they had the ball game to themselves with their aggressive approach to ... help their firms win contracts,'' says US Commerce Deputy Undersecretary David Rothkopf, who specializes in emerging markets. ``We are part of the growth story of this dynamic region. Europeans don't have the geographic connection,'' says Mr. Rothkopf.

``We're launching an all-out offensive,'' says Rothkopf. ``We hear squeals of pain from some of our competitors, but as Secretary Brown himself has said, the only major mistake we've made is starting so late.''

Chile's induction into the APEC club this month (Mexico joined last year) signals an even broader US sphere of economic influence. The overlap of NAFTA and NAFTA-bound countries with APEC membership will effectively merge Americans' two greatest prospects for exports and investments.

Washington is promoting the connection. Mr. Lord says he hopes for a ``bold statement out of Bogor for APEC, followed by passage of the Uruguay Round legislation by the Congress, and a successful Summit of the Americas meeting in December to round out the triple play.''

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