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Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001

A lesson for Bush on getting along with Asia

LOS ANGELES -- An authoritative new survey of the attitudes of thousands of Californians -- by the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California, one of America's leading think tanks -- suggests that the state has traveled a considerable cosmopolitan distance in its attitudes toward Asia and Japan in particular. The poll also has implications, both positive and negative, for the Bush administration's Asia policies.

The study, released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, reports that Californians have a high regard for Japan without being correspondingly negative about China. Over 90 percent agree that good U.S.-Japan relations are vital, 74 percent have a positive opinion of Japan, and about 59 percent believe the relationship, as it now stands, is solid. All demographic categories feel that the most important agenda for Tokyo and Washington is economic, not military.

Younger, better-educated and more affluent Americans are especially likely to view Japan as an incontrovertible U.S. friend. Moreover, on the perennial Japanese wartime-misconduct issue that roils Asian political waters, feelings in California are not as venomous as across the Pacific. In fact, only a slim majority demand that Japan cough up further apologies. Many people here appear to be getting to the point of not requiring today's generation of Japanese to be held perpetually responsible for the sins of their fathers or grandfathers. Indeed, in a nice little irony, more than one-third of those surveyed believe the United States might well proffer an apology, too -- for the wartime atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Imagine.

These enlightened attitudes take California a very far distance from the dark days of World War II, when Japanese-American residents were herded into holding camps as if they were Tokyo's partisans or spies. Or even from the widespread feeling during the recession that hobbled the state early last decade that Japan's huge trade imbalance was somehow behind the state's troubles.

But there's a limit to how far Californians would take the love affair with Japan. Put bluntly, they would not disinvite Beijing from the party; they would not slight China simply to curry favor with Tokyo. Indeed, one key demographic sector -- college graduates with annual incomes of more than $80,000 -- would actually prioritize the relationship with China over Japan. But not out of fear of any bombastic Beijing bellicosity: Californians are as likely to favor withdrawing troops from Japan as support a continued U.S. military presence, much less a buildup, as the Bush administration proposes.

If this sensible West Coast outlook to any degree mirrors that of the nation at large, consider the implications for public support of U.S.-Asia policy. Just two years ago, China was the apple of Washington's eye. The Clinton administration was all over Beijing in an effort to push the bilateral relationship toward a strategic partnership. Snubbed on more than one occasion by the Clinton crowd, Japan, our longtime ally, almost became an afterthought.

Then arrived the Bush administration: Soon after its inauguration, Tokyo was feeling the love as Washington demoted China to a strategic competitor and Japan roared back as Washington's most favored Asian nation.

That was a significant foreign-policy swing. But while conservative Republican circles tend to see only red whenever the China question comes up, California and the rest of the nation that wants to do business and live in peace with the Chinese tend to see mainly the green color of their money. So the poll suggests mediocre public support at best for the Bush crowd's intention to redeploy more military equipment and U.S. troops to Asia, a move presumably driven by their sincere worry about the China threat.

On the evidence of this major poll, then, the Bush administration would appear to have before it a major selling job. For any policy that risks increased tensions with China and requires a new military buildup in Asia, not to mention one that comes with the costly price tag of a national missile-defense system, would not rate as especially popular. The nation's most populous state may not speak for the entire nation, of course, but it speaks clearly and forcefully for the general West Coast perspective of giving peace a chance in Asia by adopting a broad policy of inclusion rather than tension.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser. His column is distributed internationally by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.

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