TOKYO — Pax Americana II. It sounds like one of those movie sequels, like "Rocky IV" or "Police Academy 6." And like the films, there's a very good chance it won't live up to the original.
Pax Americana was the term used to describe America's dominant role in the post-World War II years--the period during which the United States seemed almost alone in underpinning the non-Communist world's defense and underwriting the system of free trade held key to economic prosperity.
Now the term--with Roman numeral attached--has re-emerged here to describe one vision of a new era of American power in the Pacific. In this scenario, America continues to reign supreme, but Japan plays a key supporting role as the good guy doling out financial aid to needy developing countries.
Critics argue that it is a weak premise on which to build a new world order.
"You can't have one guy always playing cop and the other guy always playing Santa Claus," said Donald Hellmann, professor of political science at the University of Washington and an occasional adviser to the Department of Defense.
But the fact that Pax Americana II has entered the diplomatic lexicon on this side of the Pacific underlines a reality that sometimes seems to have been missed in all the excitement about the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the American-led victory over Iraq: The post-Cold War era poses challenges to the old military and economic order in the Asian Pacific region at least as crucial as those the United States faces in Europe and the Middle East.
Whether the rearrangement of power on the Pacific Rim will be peaceful and evolutionary or will spin dangerously out of control, however, is still unclear.
Europe, by contrast, appears well on its way to building new institutions that reflect the post-Cold War realities. Western Europe will have something close to a true common market by the end of 1992, with all the economic advance that promises. Eastern and Western Europe alike, along with the United States and the Soviet Union, are deeply involved in charting the Continent's future through the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
But here in the Asian Pacific, where diverse, rapidly growing economies have created a world center for manufacturing and commerce, the region remains fragmented. There is no forum, for example, in which Asian nations can ponder joint security concerns with such onetime threats as the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam.
The backbone of American policy in the Pacific--its alliance with Japan--seems frozen into its Cold War pattern. While America wants to remain the pre-eminent power in the Pacific, and continues to bear the cost and responsibility of defending the region and to badger countries into removing trade barriers, Japan quietly reaps the benefits of the arrangement.
America's role today has "all the ominous qualities of the 1930s, when England was playing a hegemonic role without the means to do it," warned Chalmers Johnson, professor of political science at UC San Diego. "While America drifts, Japan continues to grow."
American policy has lagged behind public opinion in its failure to adjust to new realities. According to a recent poll sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, by a wide margin Americans now rank Japan's economic power as a greater threat to the United States than Soviet military power--a complete turnaround from just two years ago. In Japan too there are growing questions about the bilateral relationship.
With the approach of the 50th anniversary of the start of World War II in the Pacific in December, Asia's economic landscape is beginning to look a little like the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere that Japan once tried to build through force of arms. An army of Japanese businessmen is drawing from deep wells of capital, technology and management know-how to build an integrated economic empire heavily dependent on Japan.
By the time Pax Americana II ends, perhaps even before the turn of the century, it may be remembered as little more than a transitory phase--a fig leaf to cover America's decline and ease Japan's rise to power.
Said Japanese scholar Takashi Inoguchi, who first introduced the term Pax Americana II : "Asia and Japan are bound to grow and prosper, and the U.S. decline is inevitable." How the shift in power occurs, however, could determine whether the two major powers jointly shape the region's future or whether they are set on a collision course.
It is an issue that involves rethinking at least four major questions about the region:
* What is America's military role in the Pacific?
* Can America successfully compete on the Pacific Rim?
* How much does Japan already dominate other East Asian economies?
* Can Japan be trusted?
ALL ARMED AND NOWHERE TO GO?