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  . International Herald Tribune

Paris, Friday, November 20, 1998

Japan, Not China, Is America's Chief Partner in Northeast Asia

By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune

LONDON - The recent Iraqi crisis holds lessons for another great area of strategic uncertainty, Northeast Asia, where concerns about North Korea and Chinese intentions remain serious.

Credible threats of the use of force can work. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted in February, diplomacy is good but diplomacy backed by force is even better.

In the Taiwan Strait crisis of March 1996, the United States learned that when it is prepared to deploy its impressive military capacity, its relations with China can improve.

This recognition that the post-Cold War world still has crucial uses for real military capacities is an important part of why Japan has strengthened defense relations with the United States and wants a military satellite program to enhance its intelligence about North Korea and China.

Crises will be best managed with the strongest possible coalition of willing and able allies. The United States could have taken on Saddam itself but knew it was better to keep its close British ally by its side and ensure supportive remarks from European and Arab states.

In East Asia, America finds it harder to build coalitions. It has no NATO in the region, only bilateral security ties with Australia, Japan and South Korea. Thus it has begun to work harder, and with some success, in building closer military relations with key allies.

The weak American response to the North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994 owed a great deal to divisions between the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies.

Authoritarian adversaries of Western democracies have strengths of decision-making that the democracies can rarely match. Saddam demonstrated a remarkable ability to take swift action to both march up the hill of crisis and march right down even more quickly. Authoritarian regimes can be seen to run diplomatic rings around slow-moving democracies restrained by the need to build popular support.

In East Asia, the North Koreans and even the Chinese have demonstrated a capacity to manipulate Western adversaries. China has become particularly adept at using American business interests to argue its case in Washington. Western attempts to play off diverse business interests in China are denounced as interference in China's internal affairs.

Any major strategic problem such as Iraq requires Western leaders to think and act strategically, even though the tendency in democracies is to be narrow and ad hoc.

The long-term ability of the West to manage the problem of Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction requires a more effective policy toward other parts of the region, and especially toward Israel and Iran.

It is a safe bet that as we move closer to a declaration of a Palestinian state next May, the United States will need to be even more active in delivering an Israel in a mood to make real peace. Washington will also find that closer relations with Iran will help ease the impression that it is incapable of having friends in the Muslim world.

In East Asia there is a dire need for more strategic thinking from the Americans. Despite signs of improvement in the U.S.-Japanese military relationship, Japan and other states in the region remain deeply concerned that America is cozying too close to China. The U.S. tendency to be critical of Japan's handling of the economic crisis while simultaneously praising China is the most egregious sign of unstrategic thinking.

The Japanese are correct when they argue that while their positive contribution to regional recovery (major aid) is not sufficient, they are doing better than China, which gets vast praise merely for not collapsing and receives no criticism for its earlier devaluations and current failures to seriously pursue promised domestic economic reform.

Bill Clinton ought to make clear that Japan is Washington's most important ally in the region. China is important but remains an adversary until it reforms far more of its domestic and foreign policies.

The writer is director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in London, and director of Britain's Pacific Asia Program. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.