The Fault Lines In Asia Are Starting To Look Dangerous

For years, the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans have argued that they could overcome traditional animosities by concentrating on making money. So far, they've been spectacularly right. Despite Japan's economic woes, East Asia has emerged as the world's fastest-growing economic zone.

But suddenly a series of disputes is raising questions about how long Asia can maintain such smooth geopolitical stability. Diplomats are focusing on China's threatening behavior toward Taiwan, but the standoff between Beijing and Taipei is not the only hot spot. Kim Jong-Il's secretive regime in North Korea could collapse at any moment or, in desperation, pour troops through the demilitarized zone into South Korea. China, Taiwan, Singapore and other powers are all racing to boost their military arsenals. And there are even bizarre territorial disputes cropping up such as the current squabble between Seoul and Tokyo over an obscure rock island in the Sea of Japan.

It seems a good bet that these tensions will increase. They are not as threatening as the former Soviet Union was, but they will be much trickier for the Asians and the U.S. to manage because of clashing interests and rising nationalism. It will also be increasingly difficult for Washington to play a leadership role, in part because Asians fear America's commitment is waning.

Now that there is no common Soviet enemy, Washington's key allies, Japan and South Korea, are developing agendas that could widen differences with the U.S. on strategy and tactics. One risk is that a rift will emerge between the U.S. and Japan on how to manage a more assertive China. America is urging toughness, while Japan seems more concerned with preserving trade interests. U.S. diplomats privately criticize Japan for not helping fight Chinese trafficking in nuclear weapons technology and for lukewarm support of American efforts to make Beijing play fair on trade.

Despite the warm statements following the recent meeting between President Bill Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, security differences are looming larger. True, the two countries will likely find a way to keep U.S. troop levels in Japan at 47,000 while defusing outrage over last year's rape incident by GIs on Okinawa. But how much freedom will the U.S. have to use those forces? Tokyo is balking at Washington's request for Japanese logistical support should Japan-based U.S. forces be needed to deal with conflict in Asia. "We would be placed in a very difficult situation," says one Ministry of Foreign Affairs official.

TOUGHER LINE. At the same time, Washington is finding its other key ally in the region, South Korea, increasingly hard to lead. The main issue is North Korea. The South doesn't want Western economic aid to prolong the life of Pyongyang's military regime. But the U.S. worries more about the consequences of a collapse in the North, which of late has been staggered by famine, catastrophic floods, and high-level defectors, including a former wife of Kim. To prevent an explosion, Washington is inclined to give the North a helping hand. But facing tough elections, South Korean President Kim Young Sam has taken a harder line against such assistance.

Despite all these thorny problems, the pursuit of wealth and industrialization remains the region's overriding priority, and Asian government and military leaders recognize that any conflict would jeopardize that. The likelihood is still that Asians will be able to keep tensions from derailing their economic agendas. But clearly, maintaining that balancing act is getting more difficult.

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