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Chilly with China, Cozy with Japan: Will Bush's New Line Pay Off?

It was George W. Bush's first comment on China as President, and he didn't mince words. "It's troubling," he told reporters on Feb. 22, "that [China would] be involved in helping Iraq develop a [radar] system that will endanger our pilots." Indeed, he added, "it's risen to the level where we're going to send a message to the Chinese." Days later, the Administration fired another shot: It vowed to push a U.N. resolution condemning China's human rights record.

The Bush Administration is wasting no time in unveiling its policy toward Asia--one that contrasts sharply with that of the Clinton era. While the Clinton Administration placed Beijing at the center of its Asia policy and fought hard to pave the way for China's admission to the World Trade Organization, the Bush team plans to take a tougher, more arms-length approach to Beijing. For starters, the Administration does not view China as a strategic partner, but is more inclined to see it as a competitor. Policy toward Japan is changing, too. For several years, the Clinton team bullied Japan as an unruly trade partner, then largely ignored the relationship. But for Bush & Co., the key to stability in Asia will be a stronger U.S. security alliance with Japan and other allies such as South Korea. It's a revival of an old State Dept. view of Asia, when Japan was the most reliable Asian partner in the Cold War.

The Bush Asian policy is the brainchild of officials from former GOP Administrations: Paul D. Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary-designate, and Richard L. Armitage, nominee for Deputy Secretary of State, who worked for Ronald Reagan and the current President's father in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, China was weaker economically, and Japan and South Korea were more willing to follow the U.S. But the Bush team thinks it can persuade Japan to shoulder more of the security burden in Asia, and play a larger role in peacekeeping.

Some Japanese officials are delighted by the shift in focus. "Our old friends from the 1980s are back," says Hisahiko Okazaki, a former Japanese diplomat in Washington who now heads his own think tank in Tokyo. Japan's largest circulation daily, Yomiuri, recently editorialized in favor of joint operations between Japanese and U.S. troops. But beefing up Japan's military role requires a controversial revision of Japan's constitution, and it could send shudders through Asian neighbors who remember Japanese atrocities during World War II.

TOUGH TASK. Meanwhile, the Bush stance could also ruffle feathers in Seoul, which is pleased with its warming relations with the North. But when President Kim Dae Jung visits Washington on Mar. 7, Bush is expected to ask for a pause, fearing Kim will rush into a weak deal with Pyongyang on nuclear weapons. Bush aides are also mulling asking North Korea to cut conventional arms as a sign of good faith. "That's a tough concession to obtain," says a top South Korean security official. To complicate matters, Seoul now backs Russia's opposition to Washington's desire to amend or scrap the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty.

The most serious tensions could arise with Beijing. True, the Foreign Ministry says it will look into China's supposed help for Iraq. But Beijing strenuously objects to Bush's plans for missile defense. And hints of a stronger U.S. military alliance with Japan "are not a good signal," warns Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University. "If the U.S. and Japan regard China as the enemy, China has no other choice to protect its interests." The Bushies may soon discover that Asia is far more complicated than it seemed in the 1980s--or even during the Presidential campaign. The epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease that is devastating British livestock could upset Prime Minister Tony Blair's political calculations. With the disease spreading fast, the government has banned all movement of animals; cordoned off swaths of the countryside; and slaughtered thousands of pigs, cattle, and sheep. With farms and even country footpaths closed to visitors, Blair may be forced to scrub plans for a spring election. It now seems inconceivable that he could hold the vote on Apr. 5--a rumored date. Even May 3, considered the most likely date, could be a problem. But Blair has time: He doesn't have to call a vote until May 2002. Pressure is rising on Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. His grip on power has looked shaky since President Vladimir V. Putin recently ordered him to make a humiliating about-face after he told the Paris Club of creditor nations that Russia could not afford to pay $3.5 billion to service its debt this year. Kasyanov managed to wheedle the parliament into allocating the money. But now, Putin has given Kasyanov an even tougher job--streamlining his own government, which Kremlin aide Gleb Pavlovsky calls "a bureaucratic monster." Pavlovsky says Kasyanov has until May, when Putin makes his annual address to the nation, to come up with a plan for shaking up the government and speeding up economic reform. Otherwise, pundits say, Putin may replace Kasyanov with ex-Premier Sergei Stepashin or security council chief Sergei Ivanov.

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