PRESIDENT CLINTON travels to Indonesia next week for the first of three high- profile, trade events: a meeting of leaders of 18 Asia/Pacific nations. A month later he will host a summit in Miami aimed at forging closer economic ties in the Western hemisphere. And in between, in early December, Congress will cast its crucial and long-delayed vote on the GATT world trade agreement.
Of the three, the GATT vote is by far the most important; unlike the two regional events, it represents a bird in the hand - and a very big bird at that. When fully phased in, the GATT accord will boost worldwide output by at least $230 billion a year, increase productivity and create jobs. That should be enough to encourage governments around the world to focus hard on ratification.But the regional summits are worth pursuing as well. They can increase trade beyond what GATT allows and serve as an incubator for new trade-related ideas, such as more liberal investment rules. High-profile regional summits also give leaders an opportunity to make a strong public case for freer trade.
Next week's summit of the Asia/Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is a case in point. Despite big differences among the nations - the region includes five of the world's seven major civilizations, and average per-capita incomes range
from $1,000 to $30,000 a year - APEC leaders are expected to call for a regional free trade agreement by 2020.
Pie in the sky? Not necessarily. APEC members already are working toward that goal by pursuing accords on concrete matters, such as harmonizing customs rules and agreeing on mutual recognition of industrial and product standards.
The potential prize is well worth the effort. APEC represents 40 percent of global trade, and growth has been phenomenal. In 1960 Asia accounted for only 4 percent of world production; by 2000 it will comprise 33 percent of world output. The United States can scarcely afford to ignore Asia's economic potential, nor can East Asia ignore the chance to improve its access to U.S. markets and capital.
Economic integration in the Western Hemisphere offers opportunities as well. Many Latin American nations want the same access to U.S. markets that Mexico got through the North American Free Trade Agreement. But the benefits flow in the other direction, too. Latin America has become the fastest growing region for U.S. exports, with a market valued at $65 billion a year.
Continued growth also appears likely. Latin American nations have taken huge strides in the past decade to deregulate and privatize their economies, control inflation and otherwise encourage investment.
However impressive the gains from regional trade deals, they pale in
comparison to the GATT agreement. The Institute for International Economics last week estimated the GATT deal would boost U.S. output by almost 1 percent, or $65 billion a year, once it is fully phased in. The administration figures the gains will be even higher: $100 billion to $200 billion a year by 2004.
The estimates show that all nations win when they liberalize trade and investment. A reduction in barriers to exports translates into more jobs and income at home. At the same time, competition from foreign producers forces domestic industries to lower costs and improve productivity, often by upgrading technologies and workers' skills. That adjustment can be painful, but it leads to higher income and improved living standards.
The case for free trade is never easy, since the benefits are widely dispersed while the pain often hits specific companies and workers. But it's an important message to get out. Over the next month, the Clinton administration will have plenty of opportunities to make that case.