Is Washington Getting Set To Tilt From Tokyo To Beijing?

American policy toward Asia, plagued for years by swings, could be headed for another one. After spats with Beijing over trade and proliferation issues, Washington is working hard to thaw frigid U.S.-Chinese relations. Indeed, recognizing China's exploding economic and military clout, the Clintonites are beginning to debate just how close those ties should grow. Some senior Administration officials are toying with the idea of a Sino-American partnership. That could prompt an overhaul of U.S. Asia policy, which for years was based on China as a military threat.

To build on recent attempts at conciliation with Beijing, the White House has kicked off a diplomatic blitzkrieg. Clinton plans to meet Chinese President Jiang Zemin at the Nov. 24 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Manila. If Clinton is reelected, he may later go to China, and Jiang may visit the U.S. The U.S. is also working on China's entry into the World Trade Organization. "All indications point to an upswing in relations," says a Western official in Hong Kong.

BUZZWORDS. But how far should the U.S. go in forging ties with China? Some experts argue for Nixon-style pragmatism. This strategy could defuse such issues as human rights by shifting the debate to China's adoption of a Western-style legal system. That could avoid emotional buzzwords while making progress on human rights, intellectual property, and contracts, say China watchers.

The two countries also would focus on common interests, such as a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, China's environmental problems, and settling border disputes. The U.S. should aim "for a relationship with the Chinese in which elements of cooperation outweigh elements of contention," says Chas W. Freeman Jr., a former State Dept. China specialist. The White House is moving along these lines already.

But some insiders would back a more decisive shift, making China, rather than Japan, the focus of America's Asia policy. The new emphasis could come at Japan's expense, a senior U.S. official suggests, though it is not intended to alienate Japan. Contrasting China with Japan, the official notes that Beijing isn't expansionist and is more open to foreigners and foreign products. "I see China as a more natural partner than Japan," says the official.

Such a realignment could pose policy conflicts. If the two Koreas reunify, China would want the U.S. to withdraw its troops, while Japan would want them to remain. The U.S. may be forced to make an unpalatable choice between two Asian powers. If the U.S. bases its policy on a benign China and shrinks its military presence in Asia, old regional conflicts could flare up. Japan might even decide it needs nuclear weapons.

There are other arguments against a new U.S. approach. Many experts question whether Beijing wants a strong partnership with Washington. China has been tough on issues such as nuclear technology sales. And analysts warn against undermining a U.S.-Japan alliance that has long proved reliable.

With a $44 billion defense budget, Japan may be hedging its bets. It's beefing up intelligence operations and boosting defense spending. It may press the U.S. to move some troops from Okinawa onto floating bases off Japan's coast. The hope in Washington is that even if the troops are at sea, the coming debate will ensure that Asia policy isn't.

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