New US Tack: Security in Asia

Recent Clinton trip highlights military ties that bind, not fiery trade disputes

AS President Clinton returns to Washington today, there is a new appreciation - both in the White House and across the Pacific - for the US's 50-year-old security commitment that has been a cornerstone of Asian prosperity.

That in itself makes Mr. Clinton's trip to Japan and South Korea this past week a major departure from how this administration has viewed the region and its image in Asia. For most of his term, Clinton has hammered on the more contentious issues of trade, while security issues were largely ignored.

Policy on Japan was "subcontracted to [former US trade representative] Mickey Kantor," says Michael Swain, an Asian expert at the Rand Corp.

Ironically, it was Japanese outrage over the September rape on Okinawa that jolted Clinton to action. His timing was fortuitous, coinciding with Chinese military provocations against Taiwan that raised tensions around the region and prompted the deployment of two US carrier battle groups in last month's run-up to the island's presidential election. Jitters also abound over recent North Korean belligerence, capped by Pyongyang's abrogation three weeks ago of the 1955 Korean War armistice and troop incursions into the demilitarized zone with South Korea.

"All of a sudden, the president realized all was not well in East Asia," says Lawrence Chang, a political scientist at Kean College in Union, N.J. "I think for a while he was under the impression that people in East Asia were just worried about how to make more bucks."

In South Korea, Clinton reaffirmed his intention to stand with Seoul and spurned a separate peace deal with its northern communist rival. In Japan, his mission was twofold. He eased strains in Okinawa over last year's rape by US servicemen by agreeing to reduce US military bases on Okinawa, and he won Tokyo's assent to assuming a greater share of bilateral security arrangements.

Most significant, Clinton reaffirmed the deployment in East Asia of about 100,000 American troops, the leading edge of US power in the Pacific.

The American military presence - 45,000 troops in Japan, 37,000 in South Korea and the rest stationed elsewhere - is widely regarded as key to preserving the stability underlying the phenomenal boom in trade and investment in East Asia that have become critical components of US financial and strategic surety.

Japan, South Korea, and other nations gain as well, experts say. The US presence remains their main shield against perceived threats, especially China, which has been flexing its growing military and economic muscle.

"All of our security challenges in the region begin with a sound US relationship with Japan and then you move from that to say, 'What together do we face in the region by way of threats and potential threats and how do we manage that?'" says Casimir Yost, director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard concurs: "The Japanese-US alliance is fundamental to the security and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region."

Clinton, however, has had little time to savor the outcome of his Far East mission. Even before leaving Japan, events in Lebanon threatened to undermine progress toward peace in the Middle East, something his administration has played a central role in nurturing.

The US-Japanese security declaration did have its detractors. Predictably, Beijing is openly displeased with the new agreement, in which Tokyo will boost its assistance to peacetime US military operations and "study" how far its pacifist, American-written Constitution will allow it to support them during crises. "We urge Japan to move with caution," warned Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang.

YET many experts and US officials believe China privately welcomes the US decision to revitalize its defense ties with Japan, the region's wealthiest country.

With the US remaining the mainstay of Japan's security, there is no need for China or its neighbors to fear a revival of Japanese military expansionism, dormant since the end of World War II.

The Chinese "have a subtle appreciation of the US-Japan security alliance," asserts a senior Defense Department official.

As for North Korea, its rhetoric remains hostile and inflammatory. But there have been some encouraging signs that it wants to ease tensions. For one, Pyongyang has not rejected the president's proposal for talks between it, Seoul, the US, and China on a permanent peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice.

In another positive development, North Korean officials met over the weekend in Berlin with US officials for informal discussions on American misgivings with Pyongyang's ballistic-missile sales in the Middle East.

American officials say they hope the talks will lead to negotiations on North Korean adherence to international missile technology controls. Such a step, one US official says, would be required "in order for us to be able to move forward in terms of improving [overall] relations."

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