An unlikely triad of nations may be the world's best hope for calming troubled Asia and halting a global economic slide.
The hard part, analysts say, will be getting the world's sole superpower, its biggest creditor, and the most populous nation to make such a partnership work.
But if the United States, Japan, and China "reach a stable balance of power and achieve a high level of cooperation," they may be able to solve some of the most pressing dangers facing Asia, says Ezra Vogel, who heads the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Japan's potentially huge market for imports, American financial expertise, and Chinese currency stability could help fuel Asia's economic recovery. The three titans could also work toward reducing weapons proliferation and cross-border rivalries, says Professor Vogel.
Political change is partly behind the opening of this window of opportunity. Beijing's growing economic might and evolution toward being a more responsible player on the global stage mean the time may be ripe to create such a triangle, some US officials and scholars say.
The region's troubles - from currency devaluations and bank failures to newly stoked nuclear rivalries - provide more impetus.
Vogel says that improved Sino-American ties, pushed forward by Chinese President Jiang Zemin's state visit to the US last year and President Clinton's reciprocal trip to China in June, could lay the groundwork for a triangular relationship.
Yet there were sharp grumblings in Tokyo when Mr. Clinton decided to forgo a stopover in Japan following his China summit. "There are many scholars here who believe the status of Sino-US ties has been elevated at Japan's expense," says a senior adviser to the Chinese leadership.
The top US diplomat in China says, however, that the China-US rapprochement is aimed at supplementing rather than replacing Washington's 50-year-old alliance with Tokyo. "The US is recognizing the emergence of China as a regional economic power that is moving toward being on a par with Japan," says Ambassador James Sasser. "What you're seeing now is an effort on the part of the US to bring China into a tripartite relationship involving the US, Japan, and China," he adds.
But Ambassador Sasser, along with many other US officials, says that Washington's ballooning trade deficit with Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party's use of police and prisons to silence its critics are ongoing drawbacks.
The senior Chinese adviser says that US weapons sales to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a rebel province, are the biggest impediment to forging a united US-China front in Asia.
Yet both American and Chinese analysts say that the weakest side in a potential three-way relationship is the often highly charged one between China and Japan.
Experts are keeping an eye on Mr. Jiang's planned trip to Tokyo Nov. 25. China is expected to try to pin down Japan regarding its stance on Taiwan. But Tokyo said last week it was in no position to judge Taiwan's status. The US and Japan recently reaffirmed a security pact that Beijing fears is aimed partly at defending Taiwan, and both Washington and Tokyo have refused to rule out coming to Taiwan's aid if China launches an unprovoked attack.
China is a close ally of Pakistan, the world's latest nuclear power, and North Korea, a missile supplier to the Middle East, and could use its influence to deter its neighbors' weapons programs, say American officials.
But even in this area, there is strong disagreement between Tokyo and Washington.
"China has taken major steps toward nonproliferation over the last several years, and is becoming a much more reliable power in the United Nations," says a Western official. Yet the Japanese official says that China was a major arms supplier as recently as the early 1990s, and adds, "It's hard to imagine China so quickly becoming a force for non-proliferation."
Peace beyond the triangle
Many experts agree that the US and China, which fought on opposite sides of the Korean War, will need Japan's cooperation to help bring about and enforce a lasting peace between Communist North Korea and the capitalist south.
Japan and China have long vied for influence on the Korean peninsula, and a permanent treaty between the north and south must avoid rekindling Tokyo's and Beijing's rivalry over Korea, they say.
While Beijing is becoming increasingly willing to join multinational efforts on everything from stabilizing the Asian economy to combating pollution, China's Communist leaders are still reluctant to enter joint security arrangements with other countries, says Vogel.
Interviews with officials from the US, Japan, and China suggest that any strategic partnership among the three nations therefore is likely to begin with several small steps rather than a great leap.
"Decades from now," the Western official says, "the US, Japan, and China could all be economic superpowers that compete for global market share, but cooperate to protect world stability."