WASHINGTON — NORTH Korea's impending withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) highlights a geopolitical shift confronting the Clinton administration: For the United States, Asia is rapidly becoming the most vital region of the world.
The economic forces driving this shift are obvious. Transpacific trade has been exploding for the US in recent years, driven by the dynamic economies of East Asian nations. US exports to Japan alone now surpass those to Germany, France, and Italy combined.
Security problems are commanding US attention in Asia as well. On June 10, US diplomats will meet again with North Korean counterparts in a last-ditch effort to persuade Pyongyang to remain in the NPT. A nuclear-armed North Korea would be one of the most profound threats to US interests in the post-cold-war world. Yet the US military presence in the region is being reduced, as it is everywhere overseas.
US diplomacy has long been marked by internal struggles over whether Asia or Europe should receive more attention. Asian experts think that in coming years, finally, a US attitude they have long characterized as Eurocentric will change.
"Today no region in the world is more important for the US than Asia and the Pacific. Tomorrow, in the 21st century, no region will be as important," said Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, at his confirmation hearing earlier this spring.
The spider web of key relationships between nations in Asia exemplifies the new difficulties for US diplomacy.
Take the problem of North Korea: Preventing North Korea from obtaining the atomic bomb is one of America's highest security priorities. And China is key to this effort, as Beijing is the closest thing to a friend North Korea has. Thus US attempts to get China to clean up its own human rights and trade problems risk damaging the US campaign against nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula.
The White House is attempting a delicate balancing act with China. By proposing renewal of most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status this year, with the condition that MFN could be withdrawn if China doesn't make progress on human rights, US officials are trying to remain engaged with the rip-roaring Chinese economy without ignoring higher concerns. "It's a political finesse that is a healthy way of avoiding disagreement," argues Robert Oxnam, president emeritus of the Asia Society.
Meanwhile, the US relationship with one of its closest allies in the region, Japan, is now as badly strained as it has been at any time in recent years.
The Clinton administration has taken a tougher line on trade with Japan than its predecessor, with some US officials calling for quotas ensuring a specific amount of access for foreign goods in the Japanese economy.
Japan, for its part, complains that the US talks the free-trade talk, but walks a managed-trade walk. Partly at Tokyo's urging, some other nations in the region, such as Indonesia, have also begun to denounce US trade policies.
Since World War II the US has shouldered considerable responsibility for the maintenance of Asian stability, through forces deployed in Korea, Japan, and, until recently, the Philippines.
Though the Pentagon has indicated it does not intend to withdraw from Asia, this presence is being reduced. The question is, will this lead to a change in the overarching US approach to the region?
Some argue for a strategy that would recognize the real challenges in Asia as economic, not military. Richard Ellings, director of the National Bureau of Asian Research, talks about an "engaged balancer" strategy that would use US foreign policy to bolster technological, industrial, and financial competitiveness.
Nations such as China and Vietnam view the US as a strategic counterweight to regional economic powerhouse Japan, argues Mr. Ellings. He says he feels the US is missing an opportunity to exercise much influence by hesitating to recognize Vietnam. "We would get a certain percentage of their market just by showing up," he says.