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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Their Views Differ, but Japan, U.S. Horizons Are Dominated by China

September 15, 1997|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

TOKYO — Filtered through the distinctive Japanese prism, the debate at the core of U.S. foreign policy--how to deal with China--is pushing toward center stage here as well.

Since it normalized relations with China in 1972, Japan has placed the highest value on conciliating its giant neighbor and gaining access to its growing market. To the intermittent frustration of Americans, Japan traditionally has been reluctant to confront China on such issues as human rights, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Though a fading electoral force in Japan, the Social Democratic Party speaks for many Japanese when it insists that the country should position itself "equidistantly" between China and the United States.

But now that view is being challenged by a hard-headed revisionist assessment of China that has gained strength here since Beijing targeted ominous missile tests at Taiwan during the island's presidential election last year.

Listen to Kazuo Aichi, a former defense minister and now a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the lower house of Japan's parliament. "At this point, I don't think we can refer to China as a major threat," he said. "But . . . we need to carefully follow the trends in China from the perspective that they may become a threat."

And hear Keizo Takemi, who chairs the subcommittee on Asia in the parliament's upper house, rebut the relentless Chinese criticism of the new guidelines for U.S.-Japanese security cooperation due to be finalized later this month. China's real goal, he argues, is to "sever" the U.S.-Japanese alliance, create pressure to force the withdrawal of American troops from Asia, and increase its leverage over Japan and other neighbors.

"We have to resist the Chinese attitude by strengthening our alliance with the U.S. and persuading China to accept the status quo of the military balance [in the region]," Takemi said.

Japanese attitudes toward China are shaped by a relationship even more complex than the tangled American experience with Beijing. As a neighbor, Japan jostles with China on a more intimate range of issues than the U.S. does--from disputes over fishing rights in nearby islands to the threat of acid rain from Chinese pollution drifting east.

Cultural ties and historical wounds loom large too. Lingering guilt over Japan's brutal invasion of China before World War II has left Japanese leaders virtually incapable of uttering the words human rights and China in the same sentence at a time when many Americans can't discuss one without the other.

But given the distance between these starting points, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Clinton have made substantial progress at steering their nations toward a common course on China. Both are offering China the same deal: more engagement in the world economic and political systems--if it moderates its behavior and pursues a peaceful solution in relations with Taiwan.

The best example of that common purpose is the reexamination of the U.S.-Japan security alliance that the two countries launched last year. The new guidelines still won't commit Japan to a combat role, except in its own self-defense. But Japan will accept greater responsibility for providing rear-area logistical support (such as repairs and delivering supplies), sharing intelligence, managing refugees, and opening commercial ports and airfields to American forces if a crisis erupts "in areas surrounding Japan."

That delicate phrase, as much as anything else, is sharpening the China debate here. Policymakers in Tokyo and Washington agree that the new arrangements are aimed at a potential crisis on the Korean peninsula; more murky is whether they commit Japan to aiding the United States if China uses force against Taiwan.

Seizing on that possibility, China has won some sympathy in the region by denouncing the guidelines as an effort to contain it. Visiting China for the first time several days ago, Hashimoto insisted the new plans were not aimed at "any particular country or region;" but when he returned to Tokyo last week, he acknowledged he had not alleviated all of China's concern.

Japanese domestic politics have complicated Hashimoto's diplomatic challenge. Koichi Kato, the left-leaning secretary general of the LDP, recently made remarks interpreted to mean (unfairly, his allies say) that the new plans did not include Taiwan. That prompted a leading LDP conservative to insist that Taiwan was specifically included. Both statements were equally unhelpful to Hashimoto, who wants to square the circle with a "strategic ambiguity" similar to the U.S. dodginess about precisely what circumstances would trigger a military defense of Taiwan.

When the parliament takes up legislation to implement the new guidelines early next year, Hashimoto will probably face pressure to more explicitly define Japan's commitment: "This is a matter I believe we cannot allow to remain ambiguous," insisted Takako Doi, chairwoman of the Social Democrats.

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