Hostage taking in Iraq jolts Asia

Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney arrives in China after a stopover in Japan as both nations are embroiled in a hostage crisis.

US Vice President Dick Cheney, who is on a week-long Asian tour, might well wonder if the Iraqi mujahideen have stolen his travel itinerary. Mr. Cheney arrived in Tokyo as three Japanese hostages were taken in Iraq; now, as the vice president is scheduled Tuesday to land in Beijing, seven Chinese workers from Fujian Province, taken hostage Sunday, may still be held somewhere outside Fallujah.

An election season jaunt by Vice President Cheney around north Asia to meet with old military allies in Tokyo and Seoul, to be toasted in Beijing on a state visit, and perhaps to show the White House engaged abroad and getting further help in Iraq from President Junichiro Koizumi - has instead highlighted the vulnerability of the Bush administration.

It is also proving a difficult and potentially costly situation for its allies in the Pacific, particularly Japan. Here, the three young hostages, shown blindfolded on TV, have come at an extremely sensitive political moment. Mr. Koizumi's unprecedented dispatch of troops to Iraq earlier this year has pushed the envelope of the nation's pacificist Constitution and divided popular sentiment.

Now, what originally had been planned as a set-piece offering of thanks to a staunch Tokyo ally has instead put Cheney in the awkward position of addressing the fears of a country whose populace may not be ready to face a quagmire, or body bags. Along with the two aid workers and a photojournalist - who at this writing are still under a death threat - some 45 Japanese journalists are moving around Iraq, covering the 900 lightly armed "Self-Defense Forces" there.

"Whether or not the hostages are released, no matter how this comes out, this is polarizing opinion in Japan and forcing the question of how far Japan can follow its ally if things spiral out of control," says Gerald Curtis of Columbia University who is now teaching here. "Japan was trying to tiptoe into the real world of international risk and behavior through this deployment. Now it could be dangerous for Koizumi."

Monday, hundreds of protesters rallied for a fourth day near the president's office, calling for peace and the return of Japanese troops.

No US appeals for further help

In the current climate, Cheney's reported plans to ask Koizumi to double the amount of military help given by Japan (which includes $5 billion in reconstruction aid) never materialized in a two-hour meeting and lunch Monday, Foreign Ministry sources say. Koizumi, for his part, has taken a resolutely tough stance, stating that Japan will not give in to the kidnappers demands to pull Japanese troops out of Iraq.

"We feel that Japan should not give in to criminals," says Hatsuhisa Takashima, the press secretary of the Foreign Ministry, who added that the US vice president did not make "any official request for any further troops to go to Iraq, and did not make any unofficial request, either."

Until the Iraq deployment, Japanese troops had not been sent overseas since 1945 except as part of UN peacekeeping missions. The possibility that its first semimilitary foray abroad could go sour is a nightmare proposition for Koizumi, whose deployment of support troops came late last year after it appeared much of the fighting in Iraq had subsided and after he had assuaged the fears of a traditionally pacificist-minded public.

The South Korean government has also faced popular criticism over its plans to contribute to the US-led coalition in Iraq. Last week, eight South Korean missionaries who had been taken hostage there were released or escaped. Foreign minister Ban Ki-moon said Monday that there was "no possibility of change" to government plans to send 3,600 troops.

China works to free its hostages

Meanwhile, the Chinese hostages were reportedly snatched by insurgents on April 11, shortly after they left Jordon en route to Baghdad. Xinhua, the Chinese state news service, stated it was not clear who the kidnappers were and what they wanted. State TV also said the hostages did not work for the government or a state company. Beijing has not contributed any troops to the US-led coalition in Iraq.

China's foreign ministry made clear that it placed a high priority on recovering the hostages, and had dispatched Sun Bi Gan, its ambassador, to work with Iraq's Interior Ministry.

Sources in Beijing say that Chinese leader Hu Jintao is planning to press Cheney to offer the same kinds of help to China as he has offered in Tokyo.

Still, even were there no hostage crisis, this spring would be a testy time in East Asia for any No. 2 leader from the US.

In Taiwan, the elections on March 20 have been declared officially over; yet squads of demonstrators and water cannons in the street last weekend show that the Nationalists have yet to concede to the slim margin won by Chen Shui-bian. In Hong Kong, China appears to have squashed a democracy movement in the former British colony by reinterpreting the meaning of how its laws are to be implemented. In South Korea, never an easy stop for a US president, given a younger "anti-American" generation, Cheney will not meet President Roh Moo-hyun, who was impeached earlier this spring. Instead, he will meet the acting president.

What Cheney reportedly seeks to make his main priority, a task that draws together Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul into a single theme, is the nuclear program of North Korea. Cheney is reportedly keen to keep the so-called "six-party talks" in diplomatic play, despite the fact that few Asian leaders feel any progress can be made prior to the US elections in November. Rumors have it that North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong Il is preparing a visit to Beijing in an attempt to repair relations with an old ally.

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