In private meetings, President Clinton repeatedly reminded his Asian counterparts at the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference here that human rights continue to be a major concern of Americans.
But the Asians have a powerful lever of their own: $1 trillion in infrastructure spending in the next six years that U.S. businesses desperately want to share.
Indonesia alone will spend $52 billion in the next five years to upgrade electricity, telecommunications, roads and water supplies.
U.S. companies already are tapping into the bonanza. Yesterday, the final day of Clinton's trip, Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown oversaw the signing of 15 deals for Indonesian projects worth $40 billion.
The biggest project was a $35 billion agreement signed by an affiliate of Exxon Corp. to develop the largest offshore natural gas field in the Pacific to supply liquefied natural gas.
Such enticing business prospects have placed Clinton in a quandary.
He sees himself as an advocate of human rights and during his presidential campaign, in fact, castigated the Indonesian government for its mistreatment of the people of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that was annexed by Indonesia in 1975. But he also understands the value of export jobs in sustaining the standard of living of Americans.
Clinton's apparent solution is to talk forcefully about human rights, but carry a small stick - an approach that has come under fire here by human- rights activists.
To underline their concerns, several major Indonesian activists boycotted a lunch scheduled yesterday by three senior members of the Clinton administration to discuss their concerns. Many felt the lunch was being used as mere window-dressing.
In a letter addressed to Clinton, nine activists said they wanted to see more action and less rhetoric on human rights from the United States.
"This is only a gesture to human rights," said Julia Suryakusuma, a boycotter who belongs to the Women's Group for the Freedom of Press. "In fact, throughout this APEC conference, there hasn't been open discussion on human rights."
A CHANGE IN TONE
Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher did meet for one hour yesterday with Indonesia's National Human Rights Commission. But the boycotting activists said the Suharto-approved group, which reviews human-rights complaints, lacks any real power. The commission includes only one human- rights activist and is headed by a former military judge.
When Clinton left last week for Asia, he said he would try to advance human rights using "patience, persistence and determination."
That's a far cry from last year's ultimatum to China to make broad strides in human rights or face a loss of U.S. trading privileges. In the end, the administration had to back down from its threat.
At the end of his trip yesterday, Clinton spoke with more than 700 U.S. business people and said he had been asked often whether the pursuit of commercial interests undermined the U.S. commitment to human rights.
"I have said many times, and I will say again, I think it supports our commitment to human rights throughout the world," he said to a strong round of applause.
"We remain convinced that strengthening the ties of trade among nations can help to break down chains of repression, that as societies become more open economically, they also become more open politically," he said.
Clinton is putting that theory to test in Indonesia.
Indonesia, the fourth-largest nation in the world, has been singled out by the administration as one of 10 "big emerging markets" for U.S. business.
SCALING A FENCE
Indonesia's economy has shown progress: Its gross domestic product has increased more than 6 percent a year for five years and the number of people living in poverty has dropped from 60 percent in 1970 to 14 percent in 1993.
But its human-rights record has been marred in the last year by government crackdowns on the press, military intervention in labor disputes, and unrest in East Timor.
On the eve of Clinton's visit, demonstrators from East Timor scaled the fence at the U.S. Embassy to protest the Indonesian annexation of the former Portuguese colony. They wanted to meet with Clinton or one of his cabinet members, but never got farther than embassy officials.
In his meeting with Suharto, Clinton talked about human-rights concerns in ''firm and forceful terms," said Christopher, who attended the one-hour session.
The President specifically talked about the problems in East Timor, whose people want greater control of their own affairs and a smaller Indonesian military presence. In response, Suharto told Clinton that his government was handling the situation fairly.
Christopher was more specific in articulating U.S. concerns in his meeting with the human-rights commission. "The relationship between the United States and Indonesia can never reach its highest level unless people of the United States have confidence that there is an effort here to respect the human rights of all its citizens," he said.