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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Election Offers Clear Split in E. Asia

October 25, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

WASHINGTON — China for Al Gore, Japan for George W. Bush.

That's where the sympathies lie for East Asia's two biggest powers as the American presidential election dwindles down to the final days.

Rarely in the past has an American election produced such a clear-cut division between China and Japan. Often, both countries favor an incumbent administration, on the theory that it would represent stability and continuity.

This year's Chinese and Japanese preferences seem to be rational ones, based on the strikingly different approaches of the Gore campaign, with its Sino-centric Asia policy, and the Bush campaign, which emphasizes above all American relations with Japan.

We're not talking about formal endorsements here. Governments and their leaders tend to avoid saying in public which U.S. candidate they prefer--although once, in 1988, China's Deng Xiaoping openly endorsed Bush's father, then-Vice President George Bush.

No, instead we're talking about the hopes voiced in private and sometimes in the press by Chinese and Japanese officials and the countries' political elites.

For example, a commentary two weeks ago in China's semiofficial weekly, Beijing Review, warned that the younger Bush's China policy is "harmful" and "obviously bears the marks of conservative Republican and certain anti-China forces."

From China's point of view, a Bush victory would raise the prospect of stronger White House support for missile defense systems and for higher levels of U.S. arms supplies to Taiwan--both of which Beijing adamantly opposes.

It's true that a Gore administration might give slightly greater scope to organized labor than would a Bush White House. But the AFL-CIO didn't prevent the Clinton administration from pursuing free trade with China. On the whole then, China would take its chances with Gore.

Japan has been far less happy with the second term of the Clinton administration than has China. The Japanese don't seem to be comfortable with either of the two wings of the Democratic Party.

For Tokyo, the labor-oriented Democrats raise the specter of protectionism--but the business-oriented wing of the Democratic Party, symbolized by former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, has been tough on Japan too. And, of course, President Clinton famously passed over Japan during his 1998 visit to Beijing.

The Asia Society's Washington Center recently invited representatives for Bush and Gore to explain how the two candidates would deal with the world's largest continent.

The Bush spokesmen, Robert Zoellick and Richard Armitage, both of whom served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, dwelled at length on close ties with Japan.

Zoellick stressed how Japan is changing, seeking more influence and a more independent foreign policy. "Japan is a democracy, Japan is our ally . . . [and] Japan still has the best-trained, best-equipped military in the region," Armitage said.

As for China, the two Republicans described it as neither a strategic partner nor an enemy, but something in between.

By contrast, Gore's representatives--a former U.S. ambassador to China, James Sasser, and Sandra Kristoff, a former National Security Council staff member for Clinton--scarcely mentioned Japan while giving China center stage.

Sasser, in particular, portrayed China--and the Clinton administration's policy of engagement with Beijing--as the driving force behind other changes in Asia, such as North Korea's opening to the world.

To be sure, a cynic might argue that in Beijing Sasser succumbed to the ambassador's disease of "clientitis," an excessive sympathy with the host country.

But that would be unfair, since Sasser isn't alone. In fact, in his determined emphasis on China and his marginalization of Japan, he embodies perfectly the larger approach to Asia followed by the Clinton administration and the Gore campaign.

Example: The United States, Japan and South Korea have for years taken great pains to work out a unified, trilateral approach to dealing with North Korea. Japan has footed much more of the bill for stopping North Korea's nuclear weapon program than has the U.S.

And yet in a speech last week, National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said North Korea was beginning to open up "thanks to the U.S.-South Korean policy of deterrence and diplomacy." He either forgot Japan or wrote it off.

Perhaps the Bush team might try to rely too heavily on Japan. It's unclear that Japan is ready to take on the larger security role envisioned by Republicans like Armitage.

The Gore team, by contrast, seems to treat Japan as if it were a potted plant--a silent, motionless object to be placed in a corner and watered occasionally but otherwise ignored.

In short, the U.S. presidential campaigns seems to offer different policy approaches for Asia this year. No wonder Tokyo and Beijing are watching so closely.

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