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U.S. President George W. Bush has just concluded a crash course in Northeast Asian politics. In the past three weeks, he has hosted South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen. Now Bush has to make sense of those visits, digest the various messages and develop a coherent policy.

The president has said that he wants to take a new approach to Northeast Asia. If he is sincere, he might want to start by adopting a new vocabulary when talking about the region. Participants at the annual U.S.-Japan San Francisco Security Seminar — an informal, off-the-record gathering of current and former officials and security specialists from both countries — provided plenty of examples that the new administration might want to consider.

For a start, Bush should steer away from talk of balances. The United States is the world’s sole superpower. No other country can hope to balance it. As a global power, the U.S. brings issues and interests to the table that most of its negotiating partners — and allies — do not. For example, South Korea does not share the U.S. concern about North Korea’s ballistic missile program. The South has lived with the threat of North Korean artillery for decades; ballistic missiles do not change Seoul’s strategic calculus. Nor do South Korean leaders lose much sleep over missile proliferation.

Instead, Seoul’s primary concern is reunification. It worries that U.S. demands on other issues could interfere with unification; either it could give the North an excuse to stall inter-Korean talks (as some speculate has happened after Bush’s comments following his summit with President Kim) or the U.S. could strike a deal with the North that allows Pyongyang to avoid dealing with the South.

Given the disparate strengths and interests involved, the U.S. should focus instead on bargains. As one Japanese participant at the conference explained, different domestic political contexts require different modalities. Among other things, it means the U.S. may want to stop talking about “strict reciprocity” when dealing with North Korea. Exchanges do not have to be equal; they do need to have equal value, however. And that value can be determined by either party. Therefore, bargains are inherently more flexible, and more accommodating of the disparate national interests involved.

The notion of a bargain has special relevance when dealing with Japan. The security alliance is being revised, and that process will unfold over time. No one can tell what the alliance will ultimately look like, but the U.S. military presence in Northeast Asia is very likely to be reduced and Japanese responsibilities will increase.

This evolution is frequently described as burden-sharing, but that frames the issues too narrowly. Burdens, after all, are generally considered in a negative light. Given the sensitivity surrounding defense and security debates in Japan, characterizing the main features of alliance modification as burden sharing puts supporters of reform on the defensive from the very start. That’s a burden, especially when there is, according to one Japanese participant, “a creeping indifference to the bilateral security alliance.”

Energizing the alliance is going to be more difficult than anyone expects, predicted one of the U.S. participants. That is especially true if we can no longer count on the Chinese and North Koreans to provide an easy justification for the security partnership. To jump-start the process, supporters of the alliance should discuss the new opportunities and responsibilities that alliance reform provides for Japan. A new bargain would help both countries better protect their national and shared interests in a time of change. As one of the Japanese speakers explained, “the alliance needs good news.”

Bush would also do well to avoid the word nationalism when thinking about Japan. Not that there aren’t nationalists in Japan, but, the movements that are usually referred to in this context are populist, not nationalist. They are born out of frustration with the established political order. The most successful recent attempt to tap this vein of discontent was made by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, but he is only following in the footsteps of Osaka Gov. “Knock” Yokoyama, and his predecessor in Tokyo, Yukio Aoshima, both of whose chief claim to fame was that they were television comedians who ran anti-establishment campaigns. Novelist Yasuo Tanaka rode this same current to claim the Nagano governor’s office last year. While Ishihara may get the most attention — he is the most vocal of the bunch — his views about foreign policy and Japanese diplomacy are not the most popular part of his platform. Getting the government to act on behalf of its citizens is.

When thinking about North Korea, the president would be better served by thinking about changes taking place in that reclusive state, and not reform. No one can say with any certainty what is going on in Pyongyang. Reportedly even the Chinese, who last year gave North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a guided tour of the wonders of market socialism, are unclear about North Korea’s commitment to reform.

There are incredible pressures forcing the regime to adapt to new international realities, but to call what is happening reform implies that North Korea is moving toward a political system that is more understandable or more familiar to Westerners. That expectation is likely to be frustrated. The only thing that is certain is that the North Korean government will do what it takes to survive. Reform as we understand it is a threat to the established political order in Pyongyang; change, on the other hand, is a fact of life.

Dealing with China will be especially difficult. Containment, constrainment, engagement have all had their moments. None has proved particularly satisfying. China is clearly not a strategic partner; it has regional ambitions and these inevitably clash with U.S. interests in Asia. But treating China like an enemy will ensure that it becomes one.

The U.S. should encourage China to make a positive contribution to Asia and the world. All the participants agreed that Washington should, working with its allies and partners, help define what is and is not acceptable behavior: a framework within which it can move. In a sense, the idea is to “harness” China, to enmesh it in a web of obligations. All the conference attendees agreed, however, that using that word would get Chinese hackles up. A multilateral approach is essential since the Beijing leadership will ask on what authority the U.S. sets those parameters. The answer is obvious — as long as there is a chorus of voices, rather than a single shrill one.

It really doesn’t matter what the U.S. calls that policy, because the Chinese will see it for what it is: an attempt to create rules and norms of behavior that limit its freedom of action. The truth is that all rules limit a nation’s freedom, and all nations are bound by those same rules. That is unlikely to be very satisfying in Beijing but the U.S. can take some of the sting out of the response by showing how it too is bound by international convention — by, say, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a move that demonstrates once again the value of the bargain.

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