Bush draws US closer to Japan

New White House sees Japan as the crux of US security arrangements in northeast Asia.

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When the Bush administration gazes east, it sees a different view of the globe than its predecessors did.

The new team largely sees the world in terms of threats posed to American interests - and one ripe with opportunities to minimize those threats while fortifying ties with Washington's traditional post-World War II allies.

That is a welcome change of tone for some in Asia, particularly here in Japan. But for others, it raises concerns that the new president's hawkish line on security issues will spark tensions with China, and possibly put the breaks on the process of detente with North Korea.

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The Japanese, as one analyst put it, were "vicariously voting for Bush" in the hope that they would rediscover their role as a more valuable player on the president's international team.

President Bush's election is being warmly welcomed in Tokyo, motivated in part by nostalgia for a time when Japan registered far higher on Washington's radar screen. That sentiment was especially felt in the last years of President Clinton's tenure. His deletion of a planned "stopover" in Tokyo during one Asia trip was seen here as symbolic of what relations with Japan seemed to have become: optional and taken for granted, like distant relatives one visits only when necessary.

Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell invited Foreign Minister Yohei Kono for a three-hour meeting and working lunch, making him the first foreign minister from overseas to visit his State Department, bested only by next-door Canada. "It signifies the Bush administration's decision to place priority on Japan-US relations," says Yasuhisa Kawamura, the director of the international press division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That Japan found such a keen welcome committee just four days into Bush's tenure was viewed as a harbinger of much closer ties.

"Mr. Powell said the alliance with Japan is the cornerstone of US-East Asian policy, and this is really substantiated," says Mr. Kawamura.

The refocusing of priorities is indicative of the extent to which the emphasis is expected to shift from economic engagement to no-nonsense security, especially with so many former military officials riding into the State Department on General Powell's coattails.

"The cold warriors who are coming back into the Bush Administration see the world in threat terms," says Ronald A. Morse, an expert in Japan-US relations at Reitaku University in Tokyo. In that analysis, however, Japan is mostly viewed as a way to check the growth of Chinese power. With some 97,000 US troops stationed around the region, Japan is the crux of US security arrangements in Northeast Asia.

But if the Bush administration decides to push ahead with proposals to build a national missile-defense system (NMD) - some say that will only drive China into a contest to catch up, fueling a new arms race. China has expressed vehement opposition to NMD, threatening to multiply its nuclear stockpile tenfold if the US pursues such plans. "This attempt to ensure security may, in fact, undermine it," wrote David Shambaugh recently in Foreign Affairs.

Other quandaries abound. Bush's and Powell's ties to the military industry may make it more politically difficult to reject further arms sales to Taiwan. But selling Taipei the weaponry it is ready to buy will only further irk China.

Even experts here express concern that the Bush administration not appear overly tough on China and favorable to Japan. Appointments to policymaking positions are being closely watched.

"Bush is nominating many pro-Japanese men, and we get the impression that the new administration will be looking favorably at Japan," says Masahi Nishihara, the president of the National Defense Academy in Yokosuka. "They should appoint some China experts as well."

Most observers expect that with closer ties between Tokyo and Washington will come increased pressure from the US for Japan to share more of the burden of regional peacekeeping, a concept dubbed collaborative security.

"Perhaps Bush will be a little harsher toward China than Japan, but they will also expect Japan to do more," says Dr. Nishihara. "And in our surrounding area, I think we should play a much larger, much more important role."

Japan's Constitution currently bans its Self-Defense Forces from participating in overseas military activities. But a movement in parliament to amend the "pacifist" Constitution has been met with sharp domestic opposition, particularly among those who fear a return to the imperialism of WW II.

Concerns for the future grow particularly strong when the Japanese gaze just across the ocean, toward the Korean Peninsula. Japan felt particularly threatened when North Korea test-fired a three-stage missile over the North Pacific in August 1998. Here and in South Korea, conservative opponents of President Kim Dae Jung many view the process of normalization with Communist North Korea as having moved too quickly, too favorably for the North's enigmatic autocrat, Kim Jong Il. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in October, and Mr. Clinton had considered following suit before the end of his term.

The trip was ultimately not arranged, in part because North Korea did not produce enough concrete promises about how it would curtail its weapons program. Critics here and in Seoul dismissed even Dr. Albright's trip as too much of a "freebie" for the North. Japanese officials say Powell suggested that he would proceed more cautiously - read: slowly - with Pyongyang.

Many in Seoul, skeptical of North Korea's track record, applauded what they expected would be some rounds of hardball. "We've had three years of offering the benefit of the doubt to North Korea, and after exploring positions and building political confidence, now it's time for North Korea to start implementing," says Kyongsoo Lho, professor of international politics at Seoul National University. The advent of the Bush administration may mean the end of the economic carrot-and-stick routine that conservatives such as Mr. Lho mistrust. This tells North Korea: "You're going to have to be reciprocal; you will have to talk core issues, not fluff," he adds.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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