Asia Forces New US Game Plan

Crises in India and Indonesia may force Clinton to rethink his China-first policy.

An Asia suddenly aflame with problems is presenting Bill Clinton with among the most complex and challenging tests of American power he has yet faced during his presidency.

In the past, his interest in Asia has focused mainly on one nation: China. But today hot spots all across the region threaten core US interests. India's belligerent nuclear nationalism calls into question the very structure of atomic age arms control. Indonesia's descent into chaos is rocking Southeast Asian stability, and, by extension, perhaps hitting US economic growth.

Asia dominated the summit of world economic leaders over the weekend in Great Britain, where President Clinton also raised the specter of cold war-like regional tensions arising on the continent.

Increasingly, say some experts, Asia now looks like an interlocking puzzle. Its crises need to be addressed by a larger plan. No longer can a single - albeit huge - issue such as China be seen as a problem to be dealt with in isolation.

"If we had paid as much attention to engaging India as we have paid to engaging China, it's just possible they wouldn't have felt as urgently that they had to unilaterally explode a nuclear test," says Gideon Rose, deputy director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Clinton and his fellow G-8 summiteers urged Pakistan not to follow India down the nuclear testing path. At time of writing, reports that Islamabad had already carried out such a test were being denied by a Pakistani government spokesman.

"The answer is not for India to become a nuclear power, and then for Pakistan to match it stride for stride, and then for China to be brought in to support the Pakistanis and move troops to the Indian border, and for Russia to come in and to re-create in a different context the conflicts of the cold war," Clinton said. "It is a nutty way to go. It is not the way to chart the future."

On Indonesia, the summit leaders agreed that continued domestic turmoil underscored the need for greater financial stability in the region. Clinton said that Indonesian President Suharto, in power for 32 years, must find a way to "deal with all elements of society on some sort of democratic basis."

The promise of a new era

When he took office, Clinton promised to pay more attention to Asia than his Europe-centric predecessors had. In 1993, he stood with Asian leaders in Seattle and movingly promised a "New Pacific Community" of trade and friendship.

But since then US attention has in fact been episodic, some Asian leaders complain. Mostly, US officials have spent time and effort trying to engage Beijing in a dialogue about democracy and human rights, while defending US-Chinese economic ties from domestic critics.

Indeed, with the exceptions of normalization of US-Vietnamese relations and the attempt to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear program, China has dominated the agenda.

But for the long term, India is perhaps the most serious diplomatic challenge now facing Washington. By moving a long way toward become a declared nuclear-weapons state, India is calling into question the whole atomic-age structure of antiproliferation agreements cobbled together by the five big nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China).

Yet Washington's past attempts to try to cajole India into signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) may have ignored the sense of damaged pride which has been pushing the world's largest democracy down the nuclear road.

Strategic experts in the region describe India as a "lonely power."

During the cold war, its status as a friend of the Soviet Union precluded strong Western ties. After the the fall of the Berlin Wall, Indians wrongly assumed that the US would come rushing in with aid and offers of alliance.

The US has moved toward better relations with India in recent years, but there have also been signs of neglect - as witnessed by the fact that the post of US ambassador to India has been something of a revolving door.

"Our big mistake in dealing with India has been to try to force them into an arms-control model of the world, ignoring strategic calculations such as their sense of isolation," says Stephen Cohen, director of the arms-control program at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

New Delhi is perhaps naive in thinking that its new status will lead to such plums as a seat on the UN Security Council. But by the same token, the US will likely have to realize that India has not become a rogue state such as Iraq, and that its sensitivities must be taken into account as the world tries to bring it into the NPT regime, and persuade it to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

"What the US can do is clarify for India, privately, the damage that's been done," says Michael Krepon, an arms control expert and president of the Henry L. Stimson Center. "The way for them to climb out of their hole is to declare there will be no more tests and sign the CTB treaty."

Indonesia strategy

On Indonesia, what the US and other nations can do is largely limited to urging restraint by the country's military as what appear to be President Suharto's final days in power approach.

US officials view stability in the world's fourth-most-populous nation as a key US goal, both for strategic reasons (the waterway separating Indonesia and Malaysia is the world's busiest, and US warships often use it for transit) and for economics (US firms there range from Hewlett-Packard to Planet Hollywood).

Indonesia "is not a hopeless situation yet," insisted Clinton over the weekend.

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