President Reagan calls the 21st century the Pacific Era. A great many Americans agree.They point to the remarkable economic progress of most of the region's countries, which range from the United States and Canada in North America to Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Republic of China on Taiwan, and a score of others in Asia.

Last year the market economies of North America and the Asia/Pacific traded $372 billion in goods and services, 25 percent more than the trade generated within the European Community. By the year 2000, the gross national product of the Western Pacific countries alone will be 25 percent of the world total.For its part, the U.S. already has begun shifting economic, political and security priorities from Western Europe to the Pacific. U.S. trade with Asia totaled $187 billion in 1985, 25 percent greater than its trade with the EC. U.S. business investments in the region will reach $33 billion this year, $9 billion of this in Japan alone. Asian investment in the United States, meanwhile, stands at $23 billion.

President Reagan has understandably focused considerable personal attention on the Pacific. He has visited Japan, South Korea, the People's Republic of China, as well as the South Pacific. Cabinet members and their top aides likewise rank Asian matters as top priorities and routinely visit Asian capitals.

The Asian-Pacific region also is vital to U.S. security. It is an area of intense competition between Washington, Moscow, Peking and Tokyo. The Soviet Union apparently has concluded that its future may depend in great part on the development of its Far Eastern provinces. This may underlie the U.S.S.R.'s persistent military buildup in the region. China and Japan, meanwhile, are powers of immense potential military strength.

A strong U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region and a firm commitment to its development contribute directly to regional peace, stability and prosperity. This is highly important to all Pacific Basin states, particularly those market-oriented nations whose economies permit easy exchange of goods and services and whose political ideals are similar to those of the United States.

The rapid economic growth of the market-oriented nations of the Pacific has undermined the credibility of communist ideology and socialist economic systems in the region - and elsewhere. Nowhere has the superiority of the capitalist incentive and production system been more apparent than in the sharp differences between the stagnant socialist economies of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, on the one hand, and the dynamic capitalist economies of Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Republic of China and South Korea, on the other. Even the People's Republic of China is now starting to acknowledge the benefits of capitalism.

The Pacific Rim's dynamism has compelled governments, scholars and businessmen to deal with the prospects of an emerging Pacific economic community. The form the community will eventually take is uncertain, and many obstacles to its realization remain, including cultural differences, conflicting national interests, variations in standards of living and even the difficulty of identifying which countries should belong.

Nonetheless, there is no zero-sum game in the Pacific: All nations can profit from free trade, investment opportunities, and improve life-styles.

While most Americans understandably cherish their European roots, it is across another ocean, in the Asia Pacific, where America will face its greatest challenges and opportunities in the years ahead.

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