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Saturday, April 21, 2001

U.S. must seek three-way balance in Asia


LOS ANGELES -- China is about to get a new U.S. ambassador. But will it get a new U.S. China policy?

Current Ambassador Joseph Prueher, the former Pacific admiral, has done and continues to do a masterful job, especially during the current Hainan crisis, but he has no special ties to President George W. Bush. Clark "Sandy" Randt Jr., the respected Hong Kong-based lawyer and businessman, is a certifiable FOW (friend of W). He's even a former Yale classmate. The president wanted his own man. That's just American politics.

But what's the new American China policy?

Randt does know China, which puts him light years ahead of just about everyone else in the administration. Let's just hope the president picks his pal Randt's brain often. Bush's evident decision not to sell top-of-the-line Aegis defenses to Taiwan is in everyone's interests, including Taiwan's. It's also in Randt's: It will start the new ambassador off on the right foot with Beijing.

Randt should inspire the president to formulate a few thoughtful speeches about Asia -- or some people may get the idea that Bush's Asia policy is nothing more than a series of haphazard responses to accidents waiting to happen. Surely this is the most bad-luck-with-Asia administration in memory. February brought the tragic collision off Hawaii of a U.S. submarine with a Japanese fisheries training vessel. Japanese lives were lost, which did little for bilateral relations (imagine the U.S. reaction if a Japanese sub had taken American lives.) April brought the fateful collision between the U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter (just imagine if the dead pilot had been American.) That all but grounded Sino-U.S. relations.

Indeed, it led to the third Pacific collision: the diplomatic one now taking place over the U.S. plane incident. However, the subtext (that is, the real issue that's heating up) is: Which of the Big Three -- China, the United States and Japan -- is to become the boss of East Asia?

The correct answer is: There should be no boss. For unless Beijing, Washington and Tokyo agree on a sensible power-sharing arrangement, East Asia will lose its footing and its geopolitical balance.

The balancing act is too much for just two powers; what's needed are all three players working as a consortium of interests. The prerequisites for peace and security are a strong and sure-footed Japan, an outward-looking and mature China and an involved but nonideological America.

But what are we getting?

Sure-footed? Japan will soon offer its people and the world yet another new prime minister, but, even so, hardly anyone expects big change soon.

Outward-looking and mature? China is in the middle of an intense succession process that should slow down major external-policy decisions. (Americans were annoyed that Beijing took 11 days to release the crew members of the spy plane, but by Chinese standards that was lightning-fast.)

Involved and nonideological? Too many Bush people still see Red when they think of China and have offered too much smoke about puffing up the Japan tie and shrinking the China one. What's key is America working with China and Japan together.

Years ago, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, with his customary vision, told me emphatically that America needed to work harder on its relationship with China because the end result of imbalance among Tokyo, Beijing and Washington would be regional instability. Last month, Southeast Asia's most respected elder statesman admitted that the problem of geopolitical equanimity is even more difficult to achieve these days.

"To keep this region stable, the Americans need to have a balance with the Japanese, working in tandem with them," he said in Singapore. "Without the Japanese, on your own you can't balance China. You're too far away. You need a vigorous Japan to host you and to carry out the economic side of the equation. That's a problem now. They will take some years to come back."

Today's Asian equation is a brutal Bermuda Triangle with Washington, Beijing and Tokyo at its points. But Lee himself tries to stay upbeat, as should we all, even about Japan: "The Japanese are capable of radical changes and -- in the course of the next five years more or less -- they will change."

But based on what we've seen over the past few months, five years is beginning to seem like an awfully long time.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post, the Honolulu Advertiser and The Straits Times.


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