U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has just concluded a quick tour of Northeast Asia. Mr. Rumsfeld is a relatively infrequent visitor to this part of the world, so his trip provides insight into U.S. thinking about security concerns in the region. In particular, the secretary’s “frank” discussions in Beijing underscored regional anxieties about China’s military modernization program. Although they believe such concerns are unfounded, Chinese leaders must heed the worries of their neighbors.

It was Rumsfeld’s first visit to China since he took office in 2001. Security officials in both the United States and China are wary of each other. Americans (and others) fear that China has embarked on a military buildup that is disproportionate to the threats the country faces, and could therefore only be designed to establish the country over time as the dominant regional power. For their part, Chinese counter that U.S. complaints and other actions, such as strengthening its alliance with Japan, are designed to contain China and prevent it from developing into a regional and global power.

Plainly, both countries need more opportunities to explore each other’s thinking, views and perspectives on national security issues. By all accounts, this trip did just that. Mr. Rumsfeld challenged the purpose of the Chinese buildup, complained about Beijing’s expanding arsenal of ballistic missiles and their new capabilities, and questioned the recent call, backed by China, for the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Central Asia while the war on terrorism continued. Chinese officials defended their country’s military modernization effort and dismissed U.S. estimates of Chinese defense spending as inflated and inaccurate. They also argued that the U.S. position in Central Asia and its long-term intentions toward the region were unclear.

In other words, both sides need to be more transparent so that they can better understand and evaluate each other’s actions. It is easy to believe in the purity of one’s own motives. Yet perceptions are every bit as important as reality; indeed, perceptions shape and make reality. Neither Washington nor Beijing can afford to dismiss complaints about its own behavior; greater effort must be made to convince the other that its fears are misplaced. Japanese security officials should keep this in mind as well.

The Rumsfeld visit is a step in the right direction. His willingness to go to China is an important indicator of the Pentagon’s readiness to engage China. Beijing’s decision to let him be the first foreign visitor to the headquarters of their new strategic missile command is a sign that China is ready to reciprocate. The announcement that the two sides will enhance military educational exchanges should keep the process going.

From China, Mr. Rumsfeld went to Seoul. There, the mission was the same — facilitating better understanding between the two governments — although in this case the two military establishments are allies, not potential adversaries. South Korean officials seek to balance two objectives: changing the command structure to give the South greater operational control in the event of a conflict and maintaining the robust U.S. commitment to the security of the Korean Peninsula so as to not undermine deterrence.

Currently, South Korean forces are under Republic of Korea (ROK) command in peacetime but they would come under U.S. command in the event of a war. Seoul wants more say over its own defense in the event of a contingency, but it worries that assuming a greater role might diminish the U.S. readiness to fight alongside the South. During Mr. Rumsfeld’s meeting with his Korean counterpart, Yoon Kwang Ung, the two sides reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to “a solid combined defense posture” while agreeing to accelerate discussions on command in the event of war. Both sides agreed some change is inevitable; the challenge is to adapt to the new strategic environment without undermining the stability that has reigned on the Peninsula for over half a century.

Missing from Mr. Rumsfeld’s tour was a stop in Japan. It was reported that a planned visit had been set aside — not exactly “canceled” since it was never “scheduled” — as a result of the failure of the Japanese and U.S. governments to reach agreement on the interim report on the redeployment of U.S. forces in Japan. It is a sign of the confidence in the Japan-U.S. alliance that the absence of a stop in Japan has not prompted the hand-wringing that occurred in 1998 when then U.S. President Bill Clinton twice flew over Japan on his way to and from China. Nevertheless, in Japan, as in South Korea, the alliance must adapt to new threats and capabilities. There are important issues that the security communities in Japan and the U.S. should be working on together. A strong and resilient alliance, ready for 21st century challenges, will multiply the capabilities of both countries and help secure peace and stability throughout Asia.

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