In a round table discussion with foreign journalists (hat tip: The Swamp), Mr. Bush spoke of the “complex relationship” between the US and China, but also noted, “…I view China as a positive opportunity.” He did not hesitate to mention the economic friction or US concerns about human rights, but the overall picture suggests that as the Bush administration wanes, it increasingly recognizes the importance of China as a partner in the Asia-Pacific region, the single most important bilateral relationship in the region, judging by the time spent talking about it in this press conference. The days of Ambassador Mansfield’s bar-none ranch are long gone.
Compare the above interview with an interview Mr. Bush had with NHK’s Okushi Kensuke. The NHK interview focused on a couple of bilateral issues — the anti-terror special measures law and the six-party talks — before turning to US policy in Iraq. Both of the above-mentioned issues are trust issues: Washington’s (overblown) concerns about the reliability of Japan’s commitment to participate in Afghanistan, Tokyo’s concerns about being abandoned in the six-party talks (and regarding Afghanistan, fears that the US security guarantee will weaken if Japan doesn’t demonstrate its loyalty by contributing to US-led campaigns). The Sino-US relationship, for all the friction and feuding, is a relationship whose concerns are regional and global in scale. The US-Japan relationship, for all its significance for both countries, often amounts to the US doing heavy lifting for Japan on various security issues and occasionally cajoling Japan on trade and monetary issues.
When Mr. Bush meets with Hu Jintao, the agreements reached and decisions made have the potential to be hugely significant for the region, but can one say the same about the outcomes of the meeting between President Bush meets Prime Minister Abe this week?
This isn’t to say that the US-Japan relationship is irrelevant or that the US and China are prepared to run the region in a sort of bilateral concert, but it does suggest that the US is increasingly seeing Asia policy through the prism of China policy (as opposed to seeing it through the prism of Japan policy), and that the value of a bilateral relationship to the US will increasingly be the value it has in contributing to “stability” (read a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with China).