How Much US Might in Asia?

US defense chief on Far East trip defies Asian hopes to cut American troops after peace in Korea

Ever since a terrible crime took place in Okinawa a year-and-a-half ago, the US and Japan have struggled to give new meaning to their cold-war-era security alliance.

The rape of a 12-year-old girl by three US servicemen stationed on the southern Japanese island focused the attention of both governments on a military relationship that seemed purposeless in the vacuum left by the Soviet collapse. Beginning with a summit in April 1996, the leaders and diplomats of the world's two biggest economies have "reaffirmed" their alliance, declaring that today's enemy is "uncertainty."

But as Secretary of Defense William Cohen's trip to the region has indicated this week, the rhetoric sometimes masks differences between Washington and Tokyo, such as a Japanese desire to play a bigger role in determining the number of US troops stationed here. The process of "reaffirmation" has also brought home how unclear the future security of Asia really is.

The core of the US military presence in Asia is its bases and facilities in Japan. Roughly 47,000 US troops live here, and an additional 16,000 personnel serve on ships in the region, many of which are based in Japan. About 37,000 troops are stationed in South Korea. These numbers total 100,000 - a figure that Mr. Cohen says "is the right number for now and for the indefinite future."

In Japan, the presence of US troops has become a political issue since the controversy over the rape in Okinawa highlighted some internal inequities. Nearly two-thirds of the US troops in Japan are based in Okinawa

Most Okinawans call this situation unfair. The attitude of officials in Tokyo is that the Okinawans will have to endure their lot, but there is a growing sense among these same officials that Japan needs a greater voice in deciding how many troops the US stations in their country.

"What we need," says Takakazu Kuriyama, a former Japanese ambassador to the US, "is a consultation mechanism in which the US ... troop levels could be discussed between the US and Japan as allies."

Like many Japanese officials, Mr. Kuriyama is a staunch supporter of his country's alliance with the US and doesn't see any "realistic possibility" of reducing the number of US troops in the "foreseeable future" or "as long as the situation on the Korean Peninsula remains as it is." But he also says that a new rationale for the alliance is not firmly in place.

"The issue of how we explain the importance and meaning of the alliance after the end of the cold war to American and Japanese people - I don't think that task is over," he explains. The basic work was done when President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto issued a security declaration in Tokyo last April, Kuriyama says, and now "the question is whether both governments can really believe in what they said."

"I think we've indicated that we will consult with Japanese officials concerning our troops and activities," Cohen said on Tuesday. "But ultimately US commanders have to make an assessment in terms of how we can best carry out the mission...."

Underlying this sort of mild disagreement are the internal contradictions of the US-Japan security alliance. Japan is a country with a militaristic past, which now operates under a pacifist Constitution. The alliance protects Japan, but it also renders the country militarily toothless, a situation many Asians appreciate.

Japanese officials want to see themselves as partners with the US but they operate under an arrangement in which the US is clearly the dominant power.

The conventional wisdom until now has been that the US would reduce its presence once peace comes to the Korean Peninsula. But Cohen's comments suggest that Washington doesn't link the two events as closely as some officials and analysts in Asia think they do. Saying he has tried to "discourage speculation over what might take place," Cohen told reporters Tuesday that "100,000 troops, in terms of the total Pacific region, is not an unreasonable number of people to help maintain stability."

Even normally supportive Japanese officials chafed at reports that the US wanted to maintain 100,000 troops even after a Korean peace - Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama called it an "aggressive remark." The Japanese seemed to have been mollified by closed-door explanations of Cohen's meaning, but the defense secretary continued to refer to the "indefinite" future.

The Chinese also reacted. "We believe that Asian nations should preserve the peace and stability of the Asian region," said Shen Guofang, a Chinese spokesman.

Despite Mr. Shen's comments, the US has been the linchpin of security in Asia. Where Europeans have evolved a multilateral defense framework known as NATO, inter-Asian animosity has made such an arrangement impossible. Instead, a number of nations have established bilateral alliances with the US, creating a framework in which the US is the hub at the center of the wheel.

China is a vast unknown quantity. As their economy expands, the Chinese are modernizing their military and bristling at any suggestion that they should be "contained," the West's policy toward the Soviet Union. But China may also quietly appreciate the US presence, since they are benefiting from the prosperity of peace.

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