With quiet determination the Bush administration is attempting to revitalize strategic and military ties with Japan. The US is hoping to make the island nation and the world's third largest economy an unambiguous "anchor" in an Asia that shows signs of fraying relations and uncertain alliances.
Washington is working to put Japan at the center of its vision of Asia, at a time when North Korea may soon be labeled a nuclear state.
American diplomats are also more explicitly benchmarking concerns about China, including the nation's rapid military rise, and its unclear internal politics.
Indeed, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, stood in Tokyo less than 24 hours after the passing of George Kennan, the fabled US architect of Soviet containment, and articulated a new, modified, and arguably "friendly" form of containment of China, the world's largest remaining communist power.
Describing the "rise of China" as a "new factor in global politics," Ms. Rice stated that while the US regards China as a partner and desires its prosperity, that China's political direction is unknown. The "strategic context" in Asia demands that the US foster stronger ties with Japan, South Korea, and India - even while encouraging greater trade and cooperation with Beijing, Rice explained.
"The internal evolution of China is still undefined," Rice told an audience at Sophia University in Tokyo. "Issues of freedom of religion, human rights ... Taiwan ... are matters of concern that could take a wrong turn ... and ... we want to push, prod, and persuade China on a positive course."
Analysts were quick to note that geographically, alliances with South Korea, Japan, and India appear to "encircle China," as one source noted. Rice herself stated that "these alliances are not against China, but are 'values-based relationships' " among states that have already chosen to be democratic and open.
Japan will be the umbrella for the US Asian presence since the US and Japan have "already chosen" a common set of values and understandings, Rice said.
The White House has in recent months expressed appreciation that Japan readily sent troops to Iraq. Japan recently altered its Constitution to allow its military, the world's fourth largest, to participate in "out of area" missions. In coming months, Pentagon sources say, US and Japanese officials will discuss enhancing command and control centers in Japan, missile defense, and deployment of forces, including a possible further drawdown of US forces in Korea. These developments take place just months after official defense papers in Tokyo for the first time explicitly pointed to China as a "threat." The US now unambiguously supports a UN Security Council seat for Japan.
"The US is moving to restructure the alliance with Japan, to make it an enhanced maritime alliance," says Carl Baker of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "At the same time, both the US and Japan have begun to more explicitly state concerns about China. What had been implicit is now more explicit."
Relations between China and Japan remain mixed and often sour. Japan is concerned that China will simply use North Korea as a kind of proxy threat against Tokyo. Japan also worries that China will seize Taiwan and block oil lanes. Beijing is concerned that the US is aligning itself with a Japan whose own direction is not entirely clear. In the past five years, Japanese nationalist sentiments have risen markedly. While the US has encouraged Japan to take a more assertive role in the world, and to be a so-called "normal nation," Chinese officials say that Japan remains unrepentant for its World War II past.
Nor is South Korea's view on a Japan-centric US Pacific policy entirely positive. South Korean officials have discreetly stated that Seoul does not want to have to choose between the US and China on regional hot spots, like Taiwan.
Secretary Rice will leave Beijing for the US Monday after visiting Tokyo and Seoul, in what has been an extremely quick first visit. Chinese state-run media had very little to say about the secretary's trip, and have not yet mentioned a more explicit White House backing of Tokyo. Yet Hong Kong media have predicted a more hawkish Washington diplomacy, with the departure of former Secretary Colin Powell, viewed in Beijing as a moderate.
In a meeting with Hu Jintao Sunday evening, Rice told the Chinese leader that the US government "recognizes fully the transformation that is going on in China, a remarkable transformation that people around the world are watching." She added, "I'm quite certain that we will be able to manage the issues before us."
Wen recalled his visit to the US in 2003. During that visit, President Bush made clear that the US was committed to the "one China" policy and opposes Taiwan independence.
Rice, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, also vowed to speak about religious freedom with Hu and Wen. The US for the first time this year did not take up China's human rights record at the UN forum in Geneva. Yet Rice has raised it publicly and consistently on her trip.