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As we enter the Year of the Dragon, U.S. bilateral relations with key states in Northeast Asia generally appear on track. Ties with America’s two key allies, Japan and Korea, remain steady, as the Trilateral Cooperation and Oversight Group process has helped to keep all three in sync when dealing with their most contentious common concern, North Korea. Meanwhile, Pyongyang is on an apparent charm offensive (at least by North Korean standards). Previously strained ties with China also appear to be gradually mending.

But, as American humorist Mark Twain once observed, “even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just stand there.” This is no time for complacency or benign neglect, all-too-common features of U.S. policy toward Asia, especially during a U.S. election year.

China: U.S.-China relations remain the prime candidate for a future train wreck. True, the United States and China finally agreed to the terms of China’s accession into the World Trade Organization, and Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai’s Washington visit signals a welcome resumption of military-to-military dialogue. However, while Washington is eager to move beyond Kosovo-induced frictions, Beijing is still calling for a “satisfactory account” of the Belgrade bombing incident and punishment of the “perpetrators.”

As long as China continues to use this tragic accident as a vehicle to promote anti-Western sentiments, real rapprochement will be impossible. A highly nationalistic first-anniversary observation in China in May would be impossible for China detractors in the U.S. — or American presidential contenders — to ignore.

Meanwhile, the debate in the U.S. Congress over granting China permanent normal trade relations (as called for under the WTO agreement) is likely to be even more contentious during an election year, especially if attempts are made to revive Taiwan Security Enhancement Act legislation.

Taiwan: China remains totally inflexible on all aspects of the Taiwan issue, be it future arms sales, Taiwan’s inclusion in theater missile defense or a resumption of cross-strait dialogue, unless there is a retraction of Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s July 1999 pronouncement that cross-strait dialogue must be conducted on a “special state-to-state” basis.

Fortunately, Beijing has so far avoided the type of heavy-handed actions (including missile launches) that proved so counterproductive before the 1996 Taiwan elections. Nonetheless, there are fears in Beijing (and Washington) that another “provocative act” by Taiwan would compel Beijing to turn up the heat.

Japan: Election-year news has not been all bad for U.S. Asia policy. Japan-bashing, long a staple of U.S. politics, has been largely absent from this year’s debates and a recent poll showed, for the first time in 12 years, that more than 50 percent of respondents in both countries believe relations are good. Some rough spots loom, however.

Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine’s willingness to proceed with the relocation of Futenma Air Station to northern Okinawa promises to defuse a potentially embarrassing issue in advance of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit for the G8 meeting this July. However, Inamine’s request that the new base be returned to Okinawan control in 15 years rightly remains unacceptable to Tokyo and Washington. A compromise seems in order — a 15-year renewable lease offers a reasonable approach, tying the future U.S. presence at Nago (as elsewhere in Japan) to the future geopolitical environment.

Japan has also requested some relief in the amount it pays to help sustain the U.S. military presence. This so-called host-nation support currently stands at about $5 billion annually. There is widespread belief in Japan, even among base supporters, that this figure should be reduced, and this issue will no doubt be the subject of intense debate. The U.S. could, of course, take the moral high road and agree in advance to a symbolic 1 percent cut in HNS in recognition of Japan’s economic difficulties (and its own ongoing boom), but what are the odds of Washington being that forward-thinking?

There is another trend in Washington that is sure to put future strains on the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Senate’s October rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the administration’s threats to abandon the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty if Russia does not agree to significant revisions are ringing alarm bells in Tokyo, where the commitment to nuclear disarmament and arms control runs deep. Vigorous U.S. pursuit of national missile defense, which is seen as undermining the ABM Treaty, could threaten Japanese support for the less contentious (to them) theater missile defense program.

Korea: The current improved state of U.S.-South Korea relations also rests on a potentially shaky foundation. The good news is that both sides have done amazingly well in defusing several potentially explosive issues: revelations regarding the apparent killing of Korean civilians by U.S. soldiers during the early, confused days of the Korean War; disagreements over South Korea’s desire to develop an enhanced offensive missile capability that could exceed Missile Technology Control Regime range limitations; and such old standby issues as the U.S.-South Korea status-of-forces agreement and the U.S. military’s use of prime Seoul real estate.

However, any of the above issues could turn ugly, and the current coincidence of views regarding pursuit of a generally soft approach toward North Korea could change as a result of domestic politics in either country. In addition, no one underestimates North Korea’s ability to serve as its own worst enemy through some unpredictable action that would strain Washington and Seoul’s relations both with Pyongyang and one another.

Regional Perceptions: Finally, even the perception that U.S. policy is currently on track can be called into question. Just as the U.S. Senate’s rejection of the CTBT raised questions about America’s desire and ability to lead the global nonproliferation movement, so, too, did the Seattle WTO debacle in December raise questions about America’s economic leadership.

While the embarrassment was global, many Asian countries were particularly upset by Washington’s handling of the meeting. Clinton’s willingness to collapse a long-planned economic meeting rather than bear even modest domestic political costs has led many in Asia to conclude that there is little to be gained from serious negotiation with the current lame-duck administration. This view can spill over into U.S. bilateral-security relationships as well.

In short, this is no time for complacency or inertia. Washington must convincingly demonstrate its willingness and ability to address or contain some of the negative trends surrounding its bilateral relations with many states in the Asia-Pacific region. First priority, as always, should go to alliance maintenance. Keeping the lid on potential problems with Japan and South Korea will require skillful diplomacy, along with increased attention and understanding. Insulating U.S.-China and U.S.-North Korea relations from partisan politics will be even more challenging, especially if Beijing or Pyongyang (or Taipei) takes steps that add fuel to the fire.

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