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Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2005

When it comes to American policy, Tokyo and Beijing have something in common

LOS ANGELES -- In two recent decisions involving the two major powers of East Asia, the United States revealed that it is still ungenerous about sharing power, even with a close ally like Japan, and that it is still so paranoid about China that it is willing to risk antagonizing it by acting as if it bore an infectious disease.

Tokyo's quarrel with the U.S. concerns the issue of a possible permanent seat for Japan on the United Nations Security Council. This has been a key goal of Japanese diplomacy in recent years. The nation has been second only to the U.S. as the biggest dues-payer to the U.N., it has diligently courted members of the large U.N. General Assembly as well as the elite U.N. Security Council for their backing, and responded hugely when last year's tsunami tore through Southeast Asia.

In theory, its ally the U.S. supports Japan -- but not much. Here's why. Washington has taken the view that expanding the council dramatically would reduce its efficiency. But Japan can't get in by itself, so Japan has put together a package deal that would add six nations, including itself. Japan and others argue that expanding the council -- as part of a number of other overdue reforms -- will improve the council's efficiency because it would broaden the council's representation.

Washington's "effectiveness" position is so utterly insincere that it is almost a joke. The Bush administration, so often critical of the U.N., can hardly argue that the council has proven notably effective with the five permanent members it now has. That certainly wasn't its view when that body refused to authorize the American and British invasion of Iraq. And that hasn't been the judgment of the controversial new U.S. ambassador appointed to the U.N. by U.S. President George W. Bush. John Bolton has taken an outspokenly dim view of the U.N.'s effectiveness in general.

Tokyo is seething over Washington's insincerity and perfidy. The net effect of opposing genuine security-council reform by expanding the permanent membership is to doom Tokyo's bid. But if Tokyo is looking for a shoulder to cry on, Beijing is not the place to go, of course. As a matter of fact, China is delighted to see Japan so frustrated, especially with the bonus that it is the U.S. doing most of the dirty work.

The celebration in Beijing, though, was short-lived. The bid of a large Chinese oil company known as CNOOC, based in Beijing, to buy American energy company Unocal, based in southern California, has just gone down in flames as ingloriously as Japan's bid for a permanent council seat.

When CNOOC -- headed by an engineering school graduate of the University of Southern California -- entered the bidding to buy Unocal, it presumably figured its chances were as good as anyone's, especially if it offered the most money. Not quite. The reason -- mainly -- is that the U.S. Congress decided that Chinese acquisition of such a company raised issues of national security. CNOOC, you see, is largely state owned.

Of course, most everything of any importance in China is at least partly state-owned. (That could all change someday when and if the Chinese Communist Party is prepared to take a back seat quietly, but that day hasn't come yet.) Since CNOOC is a company in large part owned by the government and since China's government is communist (sort of), it's no good for CNOOC to buy Unocal. Got it?

And so the U.S. Congress steps in with all the delicacy of a typhoon and poisons the proposition, on the grounds of national-security issues, which almost no one understands, while fanning wild fears about China, which require absolutely no high IQ to comprehend.

The end result: CNOOC withdraws its offer and Chevron, the second-highest bidder, gets the prize. If a demagogic Congress wasn't the primary reason for this queer deal, one would almost be tempted to call for a congressional investigation.

None of this is irreparable, of course. Speaking to the Pacific Council on International Policy Thursday, Aug. 4, Richard Lugar -- the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- bemoaned what transpired but also offered the view that other oil deals like this "will come through probably" -- assuming our increasingly protectionist Congress grows up.

And although Japan's bid for the U.N. seat is quickly dying right now, nothing is forever and maybe a different administration in Washington (not to mention Beijing) will in the future take a different view. But it was sad to see these two important Asian giants so rudely roughed up.

Tom Plate is a UCLA professor and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Copyright Tom Plate, 2005.

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