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America Pulls Back, Packs Bags, Loses Place in the Pacific Century

November 20, 1988|David Williams | American David Williams is an editorial writer for the Japan Times

TOKYO — The so-called Pacific Century is a patio party that the United States will not be attending. In military and diplomatic terms, U.S. commitment to the Pacific Century ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Ten years before pundits in Japan and elsewhere proclaimed the Pacific as the center of the world, America was packing its bags and heading home.

None of this is to deny East Asia's status as the world's most dynamic economic region. The unprecedented integration of the U.S. and Japanese economies--what the Japanese like to call the Nichi-bei keizai (the Japan-U.S. economy)--is now a fact of life for both nations.

East Asia's rise to prominence has been matched by California's new status as a pacesetter for global trends in consumption and leisure. Today the notion of Los Angeles as a world cultural capital is greeted less and less with patronizing smirks in the drawing rooms of New York, London and Paris.

But the very strength of the case made by Pacific advocates has led to a dangerous form of American schizophrenia about a key theater of national security. Behind a haze of Pacific Century hype and cliche, America is slouching toward a new relationship with Asia, one no U.S. President from Theodore Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson would recognize.

A measure of the change can be found in the new parlor game played among veterans of the old foreign-policy-making Establishment on the East Coast. When confronted with some new sweeping claim for Pacific ascendancy, the player conjures up the map of the Pacific he carries around in his head, and attempts to locate one (or even two) vital American interests in the region. The player who can identify no vital interests at all wins.

Making this mental tour d'horizon of the Pacific can be a sobering exercise. Given the scale and pain of U.S. involvement less than 15 years ago, it would be hard to find a better litmus test for current American attitudes than Southeast Asia.

Take Burma, for example. This year's tumultuous developments in this large Asian nation produced only a studied yawn in Washington. In Cambodia, we were once kingmakers. Today our involvement in Cambodian peace negotiations is at best pro forma . But for a movie--"The Killing Fields"--we might not be there at all.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower left the White House in 1961, he warned new President John F. Kennedy that the nation should prepare for war in Laos; that's a country most Americans now under 35 could not locate on a map of Asia--and have probably never even heard of.

Two decades ago, Johnson entertained ambitions to transform Indochina with a massive aid program to develop the Mekong Delta. Now, when official Washington considers the matter at all, the prayerful hope is that nobody ever asks: "Would the United States really go to war to defend Thailand?" It is as if Johnson or Richard M. Nixon or Eisenhower had never been in the White House.

In fact, the climate of feeling that underwrote the most intense chapter in America's encounter with Asia--the years between the Panay Incident (1937) and the Tet Offensive (1968)--is now beyond recall. It is almost impossible to believe today that in the first presidential debates 28 years ago, Kennedy and Nixon both pledged to use force to defend two disputed islands off the coast of Taiwan.

The once-imperiled "dominoes" that make up the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations have by their very successes encouraged a relaxation of American interest in the region. Where there is concern, fears of economic competition have replaced fears of communist domination. The days of John Foster Dulles' alphabet-soup alliances, CENTO and SEATO, are long gone. The point is crucial. Geography is destiny, manifest or otherwise.

Fifty years ago, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain persuaded his countrymen to sacrifice Central Europe's only democracy to Hitler by describing Czechoslovakia as "a faraway country." No U.S. senator would dream of applying this phrase to Czechoslovakia now, but how would Singapore or Indonesia or Malaysia fare on Capitol Hill?

For that matter, how would Australia fare? In the case of New Zealand, we already know the answer. Official Washington was impervious to Prime Minister David R. Lange's fussiness over U.S. nuclear weapons visiting his country's ports. New Zealand quite simply does not make the list of U.S. vital interests.

But would Australia rank higher on this list than West Germany or Mexico or, for that matter, Israel? In other words, rubbery use of the phrase "vital interest" must stop: The term means essential to survival, not merely important. Only the scale of the territory involved and residual fears of Soviet influence keep Oceania at the margins for Washington calculations of Pacific influence and power.

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