Warren Christopher’s trip to Asia is both welcome and overdue.

Funny how the mind works. When Warren Christopher telephoned from Washington last week before flying off to Jakarta and Sydney, I somehow flashed on the unpretentious little potluck party that Jeff Henderson, an Orange County-based international trade agent, had organized the week before. About twice a year, Henderson throws open his Huntington Beach townhouse to assorted PacRim entrepreneurs from all over Southern California.

Had you been there, you would have met our jauntiest PacRim pioneers-importers, exporters, manufacturers, freight forwarders, shipping agents, brokers and international insurance agents. And people like Nagoya (Japan) trade representative Kiyoaki Kitagawa, Internet entrepreneur Arato Kimura, Singaporean trade promoter Bing Ng, home page designer Suraya Aref Khalid, Costa Mesa language school manager Chiaki Ishii, Liza Vidal from the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce office and many others. They are the look of America’s future as a globalized economy and California’s as a Pacific Rim potentate. And it’s their small-to-medium-sized businesses that would be crushed if Asia-Pacific stability were to unravel. Part of a secretary of state’s job is to help ensure that bad things don’t happen to good people like Jeff Henderson and friends.

I get no quarrel on this score from Christopher, who, prior to setting up shop in Washington, did a nice business as an L.A.- based international lawyer. Years ago, his old law firm, O’Melveny & Myers, opened an office in Tokyo, long before Asia was all the fashion (and recently it received a license to operate in Shanghai). Today our secretary of state is in Jakarta to attend a foreign ministers’ conference held by ASEAN, the seven-member Assn. of South East Asian Nations. Later this week, the State Department entourage moves on to Sydney for additional PacRim talks with the Aussies. “Don’t forget about them,” say Christopher. “They are always front and center when they are needed.”

“This trip,” he explained, “is a reflection of America’s commitment to Asia. It also reflects the importance we attach to building institutions in Asia. When I came into this office, I felt there were perhaps too many regional institutions in Europe but too few in Asia. There was really no architecture to have dialogues in a group setting; ASEAN provides an opportunity for foreign ministers to discuss security issues. So our going there is doing our part to build up Asian institutions.” Henderson’s friends will be happy to hear all of this.

As we’re talking, I detect the tiniest edge in Christopher’s voice. My column last week duly noted that, while the secretary has shown himself in China but once, he has jetted off to Damascus no less than 28 times.

“Now, Tom, I have met 14 times with the Chinese foreign minister in various places around the world. As a result, we can move at a more rapid pace around the issues and avoid the set speeches which are the bane of modern diplomacy. We ease the tensions by talking straight and candidly and we can get the heart of the matter quickly.

[Foreign Minister Qian Qichen] is a thorough professional.”

Let’s hope so. Asia will not be easy for American diplomacy. For instance, what game is China really playing? There are rumors anew about Beijing’s technology exports to Pakistan; if true, Christopher is going to hear it from the Republicans that the understanding reached with the Chinese in May was toothless. And then there’s the rumor that Beijing is offering North Korea massive new aid in a bid to undercut the calculated campaign by Washington and Seoul to inch Pyongyang to the bargaining table. These are some questions Christopher will want to go over carefully with his good friend Qian.

During this trip, Christopher may also run into problems with Vietnam, ASEAN’s first communist member and easily its most unpredictable, and with despotic Myanmar (almost everyone still calls it Burma). Explains Christopher: “Burma will be a major subject on the agenda. We will be there and we will make our points. Our colleagues and friends in ASEAN are very strong about engaging Burma.”

But Mr. Secretary, wouldn’t it be better if ASEAN just kicked thuggish Burma out of its session? “It is better to have them within than without,” he replies. Christopher is a realist. He knows that there is zero support in ASEAN for excluding
Burma. And the organization proudly resists U.S. domineering. But Christopher’s understandable acquiescence in Jakarta may agitate the worldwide human-rights community. Burma’s appalling record is becoming a hot button. In a move reminiscent of the anti-South Africa protests in the ‘80s, they city of Santa Monica, among others, has voted to boycott Burma. More is sure to come.

Given all that is on the table—and whatever else might crop up—Christopher’s week in the Asia-Pacific is scarcely a waste of our hard-earned taxpayer money. Indeed, for my money, a U.S. secretary of state can’t go there often enough.
I’m especially glad he’s not in Damascus.

Appeared in LA Times, July 23, 1996, by Thomas Plate