As the United States works harder than ever to strengthen relations with China, there are signs its alliances with Japan and Taiwan are weakening. A conspicuous sign of change in Japan-U.S. ties came early Oct. 12 when President George W. Bush telephoned Prime Minister Taro Aso to inform the latter of the decision to remove North Korea from Washington’s list of terrorism-supporting nations.

Officials of Japan’s Foreign Ministry had suspected that Washington would take this action despite Tokyo’s repeated pleas not to appear conciliatory toward North Korea before the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and ’80s was resolved. The phone call came only half an hour before the State Department announced its decision.

Other signs indicate that Washington is more interested in promoting ties with Beijing than in maintaining existing military alliances with Japan or Taiwan. For one thing, Washington has refused to provide Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force with the next-generation F-22 Raptor fighter. For another, the U.S. has declined Taiwan’s request for attack helicopters and diesel-powered submarines.

To make matters worse, a Chinese diplomat hints that North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il has regretted pursuing “mea culpa” diplomacy with Japan since admitting to then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002 that his followers were responsible for the abductions. A handful of abductees were returned to Japan; Pyongyang has not made known the whereabouts of others.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait have been hot spots for American military operations in Asia. The Bush administration, however, has shifted its diplomatic strategy toward building a stronger cooperative relationship with China, as Washington has been beset with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and annual military expenditures of $200 billion.

Even though Russia has developed Su-35 fighters and China has come up with Jian-10 fighters, to compete with the F-22 Raptor, the U.S. has refused to provide the ASDF with its most advanced fighter apparently because Washington attaches greater importance to easing tension with Beijing than to strengthening the military alliance with Tokyo.

In early October, when the Pentagon announced the sale of weapons worth $6.463 billion to Taiwan, China lost no time lodging a protest against the sale as a violation of the 1982 Sino-American joint communique. On other hand, it says it is not really worried about the deal.

Among the weapons sold to Taipei were four E-2T Hawkeye early warning aircraft; 330 Patriot III surface-to-air missiles; 30 Apache anti-tank attack helicopters; 32 Harpoon anti-ship missiles; and 182 Javelin anti-tank guided missiles as well as spare parts for F-16A/B fighters and other aircraft.

Conspicuously missing from the list, though, were UH-60 Black Hawk attack helicopters and diesel-powered submarines.

In July, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party, who replaced Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party in May, had sent a high-level delegation headed by Legislature President Wang Jin-pyng to Washington to request the helicopters and submarines. The message from Washington to Beijing lay not in the sale of the five groups of weapons to Taiwan, but in the refusal to sell the two others.

Furthermore, the U.S. has not acceded to Taiwan’s request for providing Aegis ships, which Taipei has long hoped would replace four Kidd-class destroyers commissioned by the Taiwanese navy in 2005. This mirrors Washington’s refusal to sell the F-22 Raptor fighters to Japan.

Shortly after taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush said he would not hesitate to use force to defend Taiwan from Chinese attacks. He subsequently declared he would oppose any independence move by the island, and turned the cold shoulder to independence-minded President Chen. Since Ma replaced Chen, Bush has worked harder than ever to avert a military confrontation with the regime in mainland China, as a way to prevent tensions from mounting on the Korean Peninsula or in the Taiwan Strait.

From the Chinese perspective, the U.S. is no longer a hypothetical enemy, but rather an inseparable economic partner. Indeed, China owns $518.7 billion of the U.S. government’s bonds — the second largest sum owned by any country. When mortgage securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are added, Chinese holdings of American securities come to $900 billion. Thus a fall in the value of the dollar would hurt the Chinese economy.

Premier Wen Jiabao told financial leaders in New York in late September that China would cooperate in resolving the global credit crisis. A few weeks later, Bush phoned his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, to inform him of Washington’s plan to spend $700 billion to rescue the financial industry. Hu reportedly replied that healthy development of the American economy would benefit both countries, suggesting that China was willing to buy more U.S. bonds.

The expression of mutual cooperation to combat the financial crisis coincided with the announcement of the U.S. weapons sale to Taiwan. This shows that both the U.S. and China are fully aware of how much they need each other these days. China is helping the U.S. now, but the Chinese economy cannot survive without continued reliance on exports to the American market. Mounting tension in Asia is the last thing desired by either country.

The Sino-American relationship has reached a turning point, as has the alliance between Washington and Tokyo, which played a key role when the U.S. was the undisputed sole superpower. The U.S. may have begun viewing Japan, like Taiwan, as a minor global player.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the November issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering the Japanese political, social and economic scene.

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