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U.S. IS GETTING BEATEN ECONOMICALLY IN ASIA

One of these days, Americans are going to throw their weight around and discover that others have even more weight than they do.

That hasn't happened yet, but it will soon, here in Asia. And such counter-weighting will come as a surprise to Americans, who should be paying attention but aren't. This city of 6 million looks like Tokyo or Seoul a few decades ago. That is, most of the people are poor, but they are hard-working, gadget-crazed and focused on getting ahead.

Like the other Asian economic tigers before them, Thais are cutting corners on their way to wealth. The Bangkok Post reports that 80 percent of the software used here is pirated. That's bad, although elsewhere in Asia the figures are worse; in China, an estimated 92 percent of software is ripped off. Software thievery costs software makers -- most of them American -- some $29 billion a year.

A similar contempt for Western intellectual property is shown toward pharmaceuticals. The big idea coming from the recent AIDS conference here was that the "pharma" companies should either give away their AIDS medicines or give away their patents, so that generic drug makers can make the profits instead.

Some will justify such thievery as being justified by the life-saving nature of the drugs. But it's harder to justify the action of China, which recently canceled Pfizer's patent for Viagra, enabling the drug to be made generically and locally. That single decision chipped billions off of the value of the Manhattan-based company, including benefits to its employees.

Yet Americans seem heedless. Most don't follow foreign news, even when it affects their own well-being -- and the U.S. government is almost entirely focused on the Middle East. And so, if present trends continue, at about the time that the United States succeeds in pacifying Fallujah, the Chinese economy will have grown larger than America's.

The investment firm of Goldman Sachs projects that in 2050, China's gross domestic product will be 25 percent bigger than ours, while India's GDP will be three-fourths that of the United States. To be sure, America's per-capita income will still be much higher, but power -- military as well as economic -- is a function of aggregate totals, not individual shares.

And while forecasts are notoriously unreliable, signs of this geopolitical shift abound. Two years ago, President Bush labeled North Korea as part of the "axis of evil," but since then Uncle Sam has lost interest. The Pentagon has even announced plans to withdraw a third of U.S. forces from South Korea. And so the United States plays from a weakened position.

Earlier this month, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice traveled to Beijing to seek China's help on disarming Pyongyang's nuclear weapons. But the Chinese round-filed Rice's request; they wanted to send a much different message. The headline in the Bangkok Post was blunt: "U.S. told to stop arms to Taiwan." And so it goes with Asia. Since we are not paying attention, we are being beat out economically and one day, perhaps, we will be beat out militarily.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.

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