A Time to Rethink US Policies in Asia

WHETHER George Bush or Bill Clinton wins Nov. 3, the United States will have to develop new policies toward East Asia's two major powers, China and Japan.

The cold war's demise has made obsolete the assumptions undergirding the Asian strategic environment of the past half century - a powerful, hostile Soviet Union held in check by the US-Japan security treaty, and a China enjoying implicit US military support in a wary, three-cornered game among Beijing, Moscow, and Washington. This is a fluid moment in which today's decisions will set the tone for tomorrow's relationships.

If President Bush defies the polls and wins a renewed mandate, the security treaty with Japan, under which the US keeps bases in Japan and maintains a nuclear and conventional weapons shield over Japan, will remain the linchpin of US policy on Asia. The economic contest with Japan will also continue, but in general the president will hold to his commitment to free trade, while nudging Japan, as he has done all along, toward open markets.

China no longer needs to be an anti-Soviet ally. In fact there are worrisome signs that China and Russia have joined hands in supplying weapons to third-world countries - not for ideological reasons, as in the past, but for hard cash.

But capitalism has taken hold in China, albeit with an authoritarian face, and the 200 million Chinese living in the rich coastal provinces are enjoying economic growth rates of 10 percent per year and one of the most rapidly rising standards of living in Asia. A second Bush administration will play on China's desire for continued access to the American market and for economic cooperation with the US in order to counterbalance Japan's economic might.

This means a continuation of the shilly-shallying on human rights that marked the first Bush administration.

Asia experts favoring Mr. Clinton note that the broad outlines of foreign policy have developed on a bipartisan basis and that this basic stance will continue. But both toward China and toward Japan, there will be a shift in emphasis.

Toward China, human rights concerns will be stressed far more forcefully than during the Bush years. How much pressure can he bring on Beijing to improve its human rights record, however, without damaging political ties and diminishing trade links? Also, to the extent that China resists this pressure, even at the cost of reduced access to the American market, it becomes more dependent economically on Japan, which takes a much more pragmatic, self-centered approach to human rights.

Like the Bush administration, a Clinton administration will want to keep the security treaty with Japan, and like the Bush administration, it will shift the purpose of the treaty from defense against Moscow to one of keeping East Asia stable. That means keeping watch to see that North Korea does not go nuclear. A continuing US-Japan security treaty will reassure Asians, including Chinese, that Japan's self-defense force will be kept on a tight leash and that Japan will not again become an aggressive mili tary power. Clinton's policymakers will probably make this point more explicitly than did the Bush people.

Furthermore, as China uses its increasing economic clout to upgrade its military forces and to project naval and air power into the South China Sea and possibly even further, the presence of US forces based in Japan will reassure nervous Southeast Asians that China will not be allowed to become the military overlord of the region. Again, a Clinton administration may feel less need than did its predecessor to keep this purpose muffled.

Analysts of the Asian power equation warn that Clinton policymakers should avoid the impulse to drastically reduce American military strength in East Asia to trim the defense budget. Only the US can credibly play the role of a balance wheel in the region. Currently Japan pays half the costs of American bases on its territory. It might be induced to pay somewhat more if this was the price for getting the Americans to stay.

For this, however, a real sense of partnership between the US and Japan is required - a partnership that has frayed alarmingly during the past couple of years because of trade frictions and domestic political weaknesses in both countries. Restoring this sense of partnership will be an important task, whichever candidate wins in November.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.