Days after President George W. Bush vowed to push ahead with an ambitious National Missile Defense (NMD) program in early May, senior Administration officials fanned out across the globe to sell America's allies on the controversial initiative.
But Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a former Defense Dept. official in the Reagan White House, received lukewarm responses from top officials in Japan and South Korea. They worry about rousing the ire of their biggest neighbor -- China.
While Seoul and Tokyo are already looking into limited missile-defense research options of their own, they are wary of openly linking these programs with NMD in a way that could appear to encircle China. Ironically, the Bush Administration's eagerness to embrace its Asian allies could force Japan and Korea to distance themselves from the U.S.
American officials insist they aren't trying to start a new Cold War with China. Deputy Secretary of State Armitage, author of an influential U.S. think-tank report on Asian security issues published in fall 2000, spoke with BusinessWeek Tokyo Correspondent Chester Dawson about the Bush Administration's policy goals in Asia. Here are edited excerpts of that conversation:
Q: How does the George W. Bush approach to Asia differ from that of former President Bill Clinton?
A: We want to have more reliance on our allies. We put a lot of stock in alliance management. A lot more attention will be paid to Asia than was the case in the previous Administration. Indeed, if you look around the [Bush] Administration, many of the people are referred to as [being] Asia hands.
Q: Is China becoming increasingly provocative by asserting itself more forcefully in the region?
A: Right now, there's clearly a big spotlight on China, and there appears to be a bit of an internal debate going on in China. We've got World Trade Organization membership hanging out there. We've had our recent difficulties with China. Taiwan still looms as a large question in our [U.S.-China] relationship, and then there's the whole question of stability in East Asia. So there's a lot of spotlight on it. I wouldn't characterize it as [being] more or less provocative, however.
Q: If it's not "containment," how would you describe U.S. policy viz-a-vis China?
A: I don't think containment is a proper term. I don't think it's what we're doing. What we're trying to be is just a force for peace and stability in the region. And I wouldn't be involved in using that characterization -- or even one word or one phrase to describe it.
Q: Are U.S. military forces stationed in the region still needed?
A: I can't predict the ultimate size and I defer to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on that issue. I don't think there's much disagreement from most of the countries in East Asia -- perhaps with the notable exception of China -- that U.S. forces play a stabilizing role in the area. I would note that one of the outcomes of the inter-Korean summit was an acknowledgement, as I understand it, that Kim Jong-Il himself has said that U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula are a force for stability in the future. So I think -- with the notable exception of China -- everybody welcomes American forces as a sort of cornerstone of stability.
Q: What does Japan bring to the table now in terms of regional security?
A: It's a mature democracy. It's an ally. Even with its economic problems, it is still the second strongest economy in the world. The use of Japanese bases by American forces allows the U.S. to effect security cooperation in all of Asia, including down into the Persian Gulf. And for all those reasons, it is a very strong player. It hasn't always been recognized as such, however.
Q: So how big of a security role should Japan play?
A: What we've said is that the revision of the 1978 [U.S.-Japan Security] Guidelines, which was completed a couple of years ago, are a floor -- not a ceiling -- on our defense cooperation. We certainly want to see more rear-area support. We have noted that the Japanese constitutional prohibition on collective defense is an obstacle to cooperation in some areas.
But the resolution to that is a Japanese question and one that Americans are not going to give advice on how to resolve. We're intent -- if our Japanese colleagues are willing -- to engage them in much more of a process of regional and global consultations. They bring a lot to the table when they step up.
Q: Can U.S. forces be deployed around the region less intrusively?
A: We've got to do as good of a job as we possibly can to make sure we're good neighbors in Okinawa. But you're asking me questions that I'd be much better suited to answer if I were in the Defense Dept.
Q: Your reaction -- on or off-the-record -- to the sudden cancellation of your scheduled meeting with Japan's new foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka?
A: I don't do off the record. I didn't meet her. I regret not being able to meet her. But I had a wonderful meeting with the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, as his spokesmen have described it. And I understood that Foreign Minister Tanaka had cancelled all her meetings for the day. That's what I was told. Dawson covers business and politics in Asia.