Paris, Monday, December 21, 1998

East Asia Cares About the Gulf

By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune

LONDON - Responses in East Asia to the latest bombing strikes against Iraq tell us about the priorities of the Asian powers and about the risks for the region if the United States should fail to prevent Saddam Hussein from assembling a usable arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

To the surprise and delight of U.S. officials, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi issued a forthright defense of American action in the Gulf.

Mealymouthed Japanese backing for the United States during the showdown with Iraq last February, prompted by fears that strikes on Iraq might somehow disrupt the Winter Olympics in Japan, was typical of a Japan that seemed incapable of thinking strategically.

But since then Tokyo has grown bolder. Alarmed by North Korea's August launch of a missile over Japanese territory, and attempts by China to browbeat Japan into kowtowing over its brutal behavior before and during World War II, Japan increasingly sees a need to support its American ally.

The Chinese response to the raids on Iraq was sharply worded verbal attacks on the United States. The Chinese feel that if the United States is able to use force at will in the Gulf, it will feel free to do the same in Asia.

China's long-term strategic objective is to undermine the United States as the sole superpower, and the Gulf provides an opportunity without putting China in direct confrontation with Washington and its allies.

The shrillness of the Chinese reaction owes something to a sense of frustration in Beijing about recent U.S. strategic successes in Asia. The diplomatic humiliation of President Jiang Zemin in Japan when he failed to obtain a deeper Japanese apology about World War II has made him and his strategy of constructive engagement with the United States vulnerable to hard-line critics at home.

China is clearly failing to prize Japan away from the United States, and Chinese failure to manage a destabilizing North Korea ensures that Beijing is ever more likely to face a tighter U.S.-Japanese coalition.

The shambles of the recent summit meeting in Vietnam of the Association of South East Asian Nations demonstrates the weakness of ASEAN and the poverty of the Chinese strategy to build ties to it as a counterweight to the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

Increasing support from Singapore for the United States suggests that Washington has real backing in key ASEAN states. The fact that Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, denounced U.S. actions in the Gulf comes as no surprise. His implicit appeal to Islamic solidarity is seen as further evidence of just how much he is out of touch with the real world.

Australia offered robust support. South Korea's modest rhetorical backing was a disappointment, but not surprising given the increasing rift with Washington about the virtues of an uncritical South Korean ''sunshine diplomacy'' toward North Korea.

The U.S. concern about weapons of mass destruction, which played such a crucial role in the decision to strike Iraq, is clearly not the main priority for South Korea.

In fact, if South Koreans and other East Asians contemplate the risks of American failure in the Gulf, they will appreciate just how much the Gulf conflict matters.

There is a cynical tendency in East Asia and elsewhere to see air strikes as tied to President Bill Clinton's domestic woes, but the reality is that the strategic stakes are very high, especially in Asia. If America does not prevent Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, U.S. credibility will be severely damaged. And a failure in the Gulf would enhance an American tendency toward isolationism.

The prospect of the United States leaving the East Asians to their own devices leads Japan, Singapore and Australia to do what they can to reassure their American ally. It is also what stimulates China to make life difficult for it.

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