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Since taking office, the Clinton administration's message to American business has been unambiguous: "Follow the Sun." At every opportunity the Clinton team has described the Asia-Pacific region as the nation's most lucrative economic frontier.

But a new study published recently challenges that thesis, by amassing trade data that suggest that Europe remains America's most important economic partner and will be for years to come.The Economic Strategy Institute, a private research group financed by American corporations, compared Asia and Western Europe in categories like trade, foreign direct investment in the United States, U.S. direct investment abroad and technology transfers.

The study concluded that the links between the United States and Europe benefited the U.S. economy far more than those between the United States and Asia.

The study argues that America has much more balanced trade with Europe, and more mutually beneficial commerce, because the two markets have basically similar models of capitalism.

By contrast, Japan and the other Asian nations have capitalist systems that differ greatly from that of the United States in terms of corporate structure, antitrust rules and government-business relations. This produces "highly skewed flows of goods, capital and technology," the study said.

Such conclusions will fuel the already heated debate on this subject between traditional economists and revisionists. The revisionists argue that while the Asians practice capitalism, they practice a distinctly Asian brand that makes their markets more difficult to penetrate.

The conventional wisdom within the economics profession is that "capitalism is capitalism is capitalism," and therefore discrepancies in trade and investment flows between regions have more to do with basic economics - such as the relative saving and investment rates - and not culturally based variations in market systems.

A communality of interest has been lost during the recent, often rancorous negotiations between the United States and Europe over the new global trading rules for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The relatively minor disputes over agriculture subsidies, airplane subsidies and movies soured both sides.

"Critics might say, `Well, even if Europe has been important to us in the past, it won't be in the future, given the dynamism in Asia,' " said Clyde Prestowitz Jr., the institute's president and co-author of the study.

"To which I would say two things: One, that may be true but the future isn't here yet. Two, in order to best take advantage of the opportunities in Asia we should be cooperating with the Europeans instead of fighting with them."