THE United States is trying to define a new role for itself in post-cold war Asia as a ``balancing wheel'' for security in the region, in partnership with Japan. Richard Solomon, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, explained the new role in a major policy speech in San Diego, Calif., last week. He made three main points: First, that ``Asia is evolving toward a multipolar pattern of power relations,'' replacing the single overarching Soviet threat of the cold war period. Second, that ``the core of Asian security has been, and will continue to be, the US-Japan security relationship.'' Third, that ``no power other than the US is now able or welcome to play the role of regional balancer.''
Mr. Solomon's speech is seen as part of the administration's ongoing effort to work out a new rationale for America's network of bases and troops in East Asia. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney kicked off the campaign in February with a statement in Tokyo calling the US the ``balancing wheel'' of the security structure in East Asia and the Pacific.
Although Solomon took issue with Moscow's repeated proposals for an Asian collective security system, he recognized that, under President Gorbachev, Soviet actions such as military cutbacks have followed Soviet words about reducing tensions. He spoke of Moscow's ``increasingly constructive role in the region,'' including efforts to help solve the Korean and Cambodian problems. In Solomon's view, one of the most fundamental distinctions between Europe and Asia is that in Asia there is no ``single threat commonly perceived across the region.'' Instead, there are ``a multiplicity of security concerns'' that vary from country to country, subregion to subregion.
Other State Department officials refer to the US-Japan security treaty as the ``linchpin'' or the ``anchor'' of the American security presence in Asia. They also speak of a ``global'' US-Japan partnership. In view of this, some US government sources say that an effective US-Japanese partnership requires the military component to come from America, while Japan shoulders a large part of the economic aid burden that the US finds increasingly onerous. The global partnership is real, a State Department official says. In almost every area of concern to the US, there is continuing, close consultation with Japan. Japanese responses have included the pledging of $4 billion to the Gulf effort and earlier aid to countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Pakistan.
But if Tokyo's attempt to send noncombatant units to the Gulf area is defeated in the Diet, Congress and the US news media are likely to react with anger. Nor do US officials underestimate the resentments caused by the US trade deficit with Japan, even though that deficit has been reduced from nearly $60 billion a couple of years ago to less than $40 billion today.
``We face the daunting challenges of correcting our bilateral economic imbalance, fostering a two-way flow of defense-related technologies, and overcoming an undertow of resentments and charges of unfairness that occasionally surface with an edge of corrosive racism,'' said Solomon.
For all that, there is no real substitute for the US partnership with Japan, American officials say. And given the Asian suspicions of Japan and Japan's unwillingness to project military power, it is the United States that must assume the role of balance wheel. Almost all the East Asian countries, from China to Singapore, are comfortable seeing the US playing a security role in Asia.
Finally, as the Gulf crisis has shown, the ending of US-Soviet rivalry in Asia does not mean the end of instability or conflict in the continent. North Korea's apparent drive to acquire nuclear weapons, India's increasing military strength, and the potential for destabilization in China are seen as reasons the US must maintain its security role in Asia.