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Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007


Three relationships the U.S. must tend to

LOS ANGELES — Three of the largest pieces in the sprawling jigsaw puzzle known as Asia are, of course, China, India and Japan. The first is the most populous country on Earth, the second is the most populous democracy and the third is the world's second-biggest economy — and (theoretically) chief U.S. Asian ally. Recent events show that in its relationship with this Asiatic trio, the United States has serious problems to overcome.

Over the near term, the Sino-U.S. bilateral relationship will probably become more troubled. This is not so much because of anything China has been up to — with the all-important Summer Olympics pending next year in Beijing, the government is doing its best to behave itself.

The problem is that the U.S. looks to be entering a bumpy stretch of history. With the dramatic housing downturn showing no sign of bottoming out and an always nervous-making presidential election race looming, external evil villains will need to be found. This is generally the American way when the going gets tough: We blame others. China, with its trade-gap superiority, substandard and lead-tainted toys and indefatigable irritation toward Taiwan's government, will be an excellent candidate for a bit of bashing as the campaign looks for targets of foreign opportunity.

The once-blossoming India-U.S. relationship is in trouble, too. Notwithstanding the immense currying of favor by the Bush administration, New Delhi looks to be backing away from the grand civilian nuclear deal. This would tender to India a good measure of U.S. civilian-energy nuclear technology in return for a new strategic intimacy in relations (that is, India becomes a South Asian geopolitical hedge against China).

But the deal appears to be unraveling faster than a cheap suit. The leftwing portion of the grand coalition that forms the Indian government has drawn a strong oppositional line in the sands of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura, where it is strongest. If the nuclear cooperation deal with the U.S. proceeds, the Communists have threatened to pull out of the government. This would force the formation of a new government or trigger general elections. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears unwilling to call the Communists' bluff — precisely because they are probably not bluffing.

Bush administration officials have threatened India publicly by suggesting that the bilateral relationship will be seriously damaged if the Indian parliament fails to authorize the deal by year's end. Unfortunately, finger-wagging diplomacy tends to be at least as ineffective and insulting in India (with its proud history of global political nonalignment) as anywhere else on the globe. When will we Americans learn this?

We also need to learn that our friends in Japan will always try to do the best they can for us, but that severe restrictions on what they can do are to be found in their constitution, in their culture and, indeed, in their self-interest. Dramatically, Tokyo has recalled its naval refueling vessels from the Indian Ocean. They will no longer be available to supply oil for U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan (and, it is suspected, in Iraq as well).

The recall was mandated by the Diet's refusal to renew the necessary authorization for this unusual out-of-region naval operation. It had been initially engineered by Junichiro Koizumi, the political magician, but since his leaving office after five triumphant years as prime minister, his Liberal Democratic Party has badly lost its grip. It also lost control of the Upper House in elections held this past summer.

The winding down of the Indian Ocean refueling operation is a big blow to the Bush administration, which had been proud, in the response to 9/11, to have Tokyo on one side and London on the other. Now it has neither.

In this connection, it must be noted that Foreign Affairs, the bimonthly journal on international relations published by the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations in New York, offers two inadequate articles this month on America and Asia. One, titled "Winning Asia," is by the otherwise well-respected Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. He terms the Bush administration's policy in Asia an untold success story: "President George W. Bush's Asia policy has worked," he concludes unequivocally.

The second article of interest is titled "America's Strategic Opportunity With India: The New U.S.-India Partnership." It comes from R. Nicholas Burns, the No. 2 in the Bush State Department. He writes: "The realization of a broad U.S.-India friendship has long eluded U.S. presidents and Indian prime ministers." The truth is that it still is elusive.

Overall, the U.S. relationship with the Big Three in Asia is not at debacle status — as it is, say, in the Middle East. By contrast, it looks much better — as in the winter weather of Chicago is better than winter on the North Pole. But the seemingly authoritative articles in Foreign Affairs — written by two men of respect — are problematic.

What is especially worrying about them is the possibility that too many other members of the American East Coast foreign-policy establishment share the same complacent views. Our problems with China, India and Japan are real, important and, perhaps, deeply embedded.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a syndicated columnist. Copyright Tom Plate 2007.

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