For years, Washington seemed to be gradually folding up the security umbrella that protected U.S. allies in Asia. U.S. military personnel dwindled to 100,000, and the ship count of the Navy's Pacific Fleet sank from 250 in 1991 to 196 today. With policymakers focused on Central Europe and the Middle East, the Clinton Administration's Asia policy seemed to be a simple one: Only trade counts.
But that changed suddenly when the the U.S. dispatched two carrier groups in response to Beijing's military exercises aimed at intimidating Taiwan's voters. Events are forcing the Administration to view the region through a different prism. Asian nations fear China could threaten critical shipping lanes as much as they fret about Japan rearming to protect itself against the Middle Kingdom.
Many Asian leaders, whether publicly or privately, are saying that only the U.S. can serve as a counterweight to China and Japan, guaranteeing a peaceful transition into the 21st century. Getting those complex relationships right is now back on Washington's front burner: A series of high-level meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials is on tap, just as President Clinton tries to shore up Japan's status as a security linchpin during an April 16-17 visit. "If this triangular relationship is in balance, the rest of East Asia will be stable," says Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's former Prime Minister.
Such an approach is something Administration critics have long demanded. But it carries grave political risks for the President. As he tries to assure China he is not bent on containment, the GOP-controlled Congress is readying to blast him for appeasement. Even though there are signs that military tensions are easing, the House voted 369 to 14 on Mar. 19 to assist Taiwan if China attacks. Republicans on the campaign trail are sure to label Clinton "soft" if he makes any compromises on trade issues. "The stars are not in perfect alignment here," concedes a senior Administration official. "This is an election year."
The largest display of U.S. military power in Asia since the Vietnam War is also likely to revive the American debate about whether the U.S. should spend so heavily to guarantee Asia's prosperity. Getting Japan and others to defray some of the costs could take on renewed urgency. And in view of huge trade imbalances, trade hawks could press the Administration to leverage its military strength to pry open more markets.
UPBEAT. The Clintonites, however, are proceeding cautiously in view of Asian ambivalence toward the U.S. military presence. Trade officials, far from pressing on sensitive issues with Japan and China, appear to be holding fire at least temporarily. The payoff for the U.S., they say, is stable markets. America can create more export-related jobs if "people in Asia are concentrating on getting rich, rather than attacking each other," says a top Administration official.
Trying to assuage irritants, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor has delayed slapping sanctions on China for ripping off compact disks and other copyright infringements. The Administration is going to make a big push to renew China's most-favored-nation privileges. U.S. officials also are playing up the fact that the deficit with Japan is declining and that exports to that country are up 80% in products covered by the 20 trade pacts Clinton has signed.
The upbeat spin on trade will set the stage for Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to sign an agreement keeping all 47,000 U.S. soldiers in Japan. Negotiations over those forces have been complicated by outrage over the rape last year of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by American GIs. Partly because of China's saber rattling, Japan seems eager to keep the troops, although some may be moved from the hostile environs of Okinawa.
Washington and Tokyo remain divided on some key defense issues, however. Like most countries in the area, Japan doesn't want to choose between the U.S. and China. So while Tokyo will provide logistical support for routine war games, it may balk at exercises designed to send a message to Beijing. If Japan were asked to play a combat-support role, "that's probably against the present policy of the government," says a Foreign Ministry official.
Washington may have to walk a similar tightrope with other Asian nations. While Singapore has few qualms about letting U.S. ships dock there, feelings are mixed in Indonesia. It did let the U.S.S. Blue Ridge, the 7th Fleet command ship, dock in Jakarta recently, but Marines on board felt obliged to put a fresh coat of paint on a mosque to preserve goodwill. A prolonged presence would not go over well. "We want the U.S. to be on tap but not on top," says Juwono Sudarsono, vice-governor of the National Resilience Institute, an army training school.
TOUGH NUT. China remains the toughest nut to crack. U.S. officials now expect Chinese exercises to continue at least through Taiwan's Presidential inauguration in May. Some experts worry that dispatching ships may have hurt relations. "We've gotten away from a political approach to the issue of Taiwan," frets Richard Solomon, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. "It's been remilitarized."
But sources say new Ambassador James Sasser in Beijing hopes to discuss common interests such as a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and economic issues that need resolution. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord took the same tack in early March with Liu Huaqiu, director of foreign affairs for China's State Council. Christopher will meet Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in the Netherlands on April 21.
Another key player in managing China relations may be Defense Secretary William J. Perry, one of the few U.S. officials with standing in Beijing. He has maintained ties through difficult times. During the height of Chinese exercises off Taiwan, a delegation of U.S. military medical personnel visited China. And General Chi Haotian, China's National Defense Minister, is expected to visit the U.S. in early April. Some experts believe it was Perry-backed military-to-military talks that produced assurances Beijing wouldn't attack Taipei.
But Perry can't shoulder the entire burden. Ultimately, the key decisions--and overall coordination--will have to come from the Oval Office. "We should have a clear authoritative statement from the President on what we expect of the U.S.-China relationship," says Representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), ranking member of the House International Affairs Committee. If Clinton gives one, it would send a clear signal that investment and trade work in Asia only in a stable environment--and the U.S. plays a critical role in providing it.