Asia Is Whispering: "Yankee Come Back"

The bellicose rumblings from Beijing are giving Asian governments a bad case of the jitters. China refuses to scale back on the warlike rhetoric targeting Taiwan, which has edged closer in recent weeks to asserting its independence. Beijing's argument with Manila over some potentially valuable real estate in the South China Sea has gotten nasty. And a bold assertion by the Chinese that they have the neutron bomb is reminding its neighbors how lethal an Asian arms race could be.

So Asian governments want an insurance policy--and they're looking to Washington to get it. That's an interesting twist: Some regional leaders who once decried U.S. meddling are suddenly scrambling for a spot under America's security umbrella. That could mean an increase in the U.S. military's already considerable influence in the region. But Washington has to tread carefully: It wants to help its friends without arousing the ire of an already irritated China.

The Philippines offer a perfect example of Yankee Come Back syndrome. Manila kicked the U.S. out of its two huge military bases in 1991. But since then the Chinese have intensified their interest in the Spratly Islands, which may be sitting on huge natural gas deposits--and which Manila claims.

Now the Filipinos want the Americans to come visit--often. So on July 22 the USS Blue Ridge, flagship of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, sailed into Manila harbor greeted by red, white, and blue balloons and the Philippines Navy band. The fleet arrived three days after a Philippines patrol boat collided with a Chinese fishing boat in disputed waters, provoking a howl of outrage from Beijing. But Philippines President Joseph Estrada sees China as the bully. He wants the U.S. to show that small countries aren't "helpless in the face of expansionist designs."

The visit of the Blue Ridge also fortuitously gave the U.S. a chance to show force just as the latest Taiwan crisis heated up. Officially, the U.S. has frowned on President Lee Teng-hui's separatist pronouncements. But the presence of a U.S. flagship not far from the Taiwan Strait is a none-too-subtle reminder of America's high level of interest in the region. Mindful of this, China has signalled its willingness to negotiate over the Spratlys.

The China question is not the only one nagging Asian leaders. Japan now fears North Korean missiles, so it's cooperating with the U.S. on research for a missile defense system. Singapore worries about a spread of anti-ethnic Chinese violence from Malaysia and Indonesia: Its government is upgrading port facilities to handle the biggest U.S. aircraft carriers.

LOCAL COP. Local politics in Asia still have an anti-American tinge, so the region's leaders cannot reconstruct the kind of U.S. presence that characterized the cold war. For example, a proposed landing strip in Okinawa has run into local opposition. But though Asians may not want a police station next door, they still want cops on the beat. "What [Asians] want is a constant flow of U.S. Navy traffic through the region," says a senior State Dept. official. That also works for the U.S. Navy, which needs flexibility. "The era of bases is over," says the Seventh Fleet commander, Vice-Admiral Walter F. Doran. "That's not necessarily a bad thing."

Building up the U.S. military profile will still be tricky. If the U.S. and Japan cooperate on missile defense, for example, China will feel compelled to bolster its missile arsenal. There's no easy solution. But in these times, many Asian governments will be glad to see those U.S. flattops steaming into port.