East Asians Seek US Partnerships

EAST Asia in the post-cold-war era needs a strong America - an America that remains present in the region militarily and economically. That was the major theme of a conference in Tokyo sponsored by the Asia Society of New York and attended by four prime ministers, by high-ranking officials, and by business leaders from almost all the countries in the region.

Delegates inclined to emerge from their cavernous basement hall in a Tokyo hotel would have noticed that mid-May is azalea time, when usually demure sidewalks blossom in flaming pinks and oranges. The colors match the Asian mood: buoyed by strong economic growth, most Asians (except Japan) are optimistic about their future. Even in recession-hit Japan, the gloom is palpably less than in Europe or America.

The optimism, however, is conditional: It requires partnership with America. Much of the conference's time was devoted to Asians repeating, in one way or another, why a strong America must remain in the region, and to Americans promising that that is indeed the policy of the new Democratic Clinton administration, as it was of its Republican predecessors.

Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called the American role "crucial" to Asian needs for the "stable environment" and "international framework" that will promote the region's growth and prosperity. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa of Japan said much the same thing. And Winston Lord, the State Department's top official handling Asia, responded that "no region is more important to the United States than Asia."

Yet the East Asians remain uneasy. The cold war is over, but as yet no new framework for global or regional cooperation has been established. China and Japan are the giants of East Asia. Both cast long shadows across the whole region. How they define their relationships with each other and with the US will determine the long-term stability of the arc from Hokkaido to the Straits of Malacca.

In an earlier period, Washington would have taken the lead to proclaim a new policy, whatever it might be, and to get its Asian partners to go along, willingly or grudgingly. But those days of boundless American self-confidence are past. Instead, as Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia boldly declared, "We must commit ourselves to ensuring that the history of East Asia will be made in East Asia, for East Asia and by Asians."

East Asian history will certainly be made by East Asians - but they are not, nor do they want to be, the only actors on their stage. The US still has not made up with Vietnam, but that is not for want of welcome on Hanoi's part. The rest of East Asia is wide open to American trade and investment - especially China, which wants to use it to counterbalance Japan's proximity and economic might.

The other East Asians are even more anxious to see the US stay in their region - not only as an economic partner, but as a strategic military one. Their concern is two-pronged: Increasingly uncomfortable with Japan's ubiquitous economic presence, they are also dismayed by the looming military and naval shadow cast by a China that claims a good portion of the South China Sea and whose economic growth enables it to modernize and strengthen its armed forces just as the rest of the world is talking of enjoyi ng a peace dividend.

The US is now the world's only superpower. It has a security treaty with Japan that allows it to maintain a forward defense posture. East Asians want the treaty to continue. For them, it is a guarantee that Japan will not try to acquire the military might to complement its economic strength. China is equally eager to see the Americans stay.

East Asians know that the Clinton administration's No. 1 priority is reinvigorating the American economy. They too want a strong American economy, for without it their own economic growth could falter. But the question they all ask is whether President Clinton and his advisers are so focused on domestic economic problems that they lose sight of the strategic and military factor in US external relations, especially with Asia.

Winston Lord and other American officials toured East Asia and came to Tokyo to reassure the region on precisely this point. But the questions continue, and will do so until a clearer and more consistent outline of American intentions in Asia emerges.

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