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Monday, April 7, 2003

Diplomatic offensive awaits

LOS ANGELES -- Iraq is finding out what it means to be an enemy of the United States. But what does it mean to be a friend?

Consider how Japan has supported the U.S. push into Baghdad. Even so, the truth is that most Japanese are furious with their prime minister. They believe Junichiro Koizumi caved in to U.S. pressure because of North Korea. Had Japan's Constitution permitted a more robust military posture, they argue, they would not be so beholden to Washington for protection and deterrence against Pyongyang.

So when America hopscotched over the U.N. Security Council, hit the Iraqi desert and brought its friends and allies kicking and screaming along with it, the Japanese were left wondering about the next U.S. military adventure it might be compelled to support against its better judgment. To avoid being put in that position again, Japan could dramatically build up its defenses. But that would raise tensions throughout the region and prompt neighboring China, in particular, to accelerate its own arms buildup. No one wants that.

Consider how South Korea's new president has also supported Washington against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Many South Koreans are as angry with Roh Moo Hyun as the Japanese with Koizumi. But, despite being swept into office in February on a wave of anti-Bush sentiment, it didn't take Roh long to accept, for the time being at least, the primacy of the security relationship with Washington by endorsing the Iraq action, even against the ferocity of public sentiment at home.

Also, Roh knows that the paranoid North Koreans suspect that they are next on the Pentagon hit list once Baghdad is in the bag. If that's true, a lot of South Koreans might wish America to be bogged down in the Iraqi desert. Not because they're anti-American but because they're pro-Korean: They know that an Iraq-type offensive against North Korea would be a disaster for both Koreas. Roh hopes loyalty to Washington over Iraq will stay the U.S. hand from such a new adventure.

Consider, too, the dilemma of the prime minister of Australia -- a country that has never failed to answer the bell when Washington has called. It's in the swim again, though the government has downplayed the whole deal in the face of hostile domestic opinion. It's not hard to imagine that this might just well be Australia's last call to American arms: If the Bush administration pushes its "you're either with us or against us" campaign as regards terrorism (or anything else) anymore, Canberra may be forced to recalculate its national interest. Australia, more economically interdependent with Asia than with America, cannot afford to antagonize its immediate neighbors and trading partners, as it has with its support for the Iraq operation.

The problem with being a friend of America, writes Paul Kelly, eminent columnist for The Australian newspaper, in the current issue of the Washington-based quarterly The National Interest, is that it is getting to be costly. Australia's combat contribution to the Iraq battle is modest, but, even so, it is being portrayed, especially in Asia's multitudinous Islamic quarters, as proof of how the Aussie heart and soul belong not to the new Asia, but to the old pentagonal America. Even as it tries to maintain its historic loyalty, Australia needs to reach out to its neighbors, from Indonesia to China, if it is to avoid what Kelly terms "a zero-sum game between Australia's regional needs and its U.S. alliance."

Indonesia -- in a very real sense Australia's Mexico, if Mexico had 10 times the U.S. population -- would richly benefit from Australia's assistance as the world's largest Islamic populace seeks to advance toward modernization. That goal is in America's interest, too. That's why Australia can help Asia more by appearing to be less in America's back pocket. And Washington can help Australia the most by antagonizing China the least.

Most Australians believe the solution to the rise of China isn't overt containment but across-the-board engagement. "The nightmare scenario for Australia," writes Kelly," is one in which it would be forced in a crisis to choose between the United States and China. Since Australia would have to side with America, at least nominally, the costs arising from a breach with China would be substantial."

In other words, if the Bush administration pushes Beijing too hard on issues like Taiwan, it's really on its own. Even after the bombs stop falling on Baghdad, the geopolitical fallout from Operation Iraqi Freedom won't stop soon, especially in Asia. That's why America needs to reward its loyal allies with the same attention to diplomatic detail as it is now attacking one of its enemies with punishing military detail.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate is a UCLA professor and director of the nonprofit Asia Pacific Media Network.

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