The US plays the game

With this week devoted to meetings running up to the weekend’s APEC summit (I’m curious about what leaders will wear for the Australian “national costume” photo), there is lots of talk about the shape of US Asia policy as the Bush administration comes to a close.

Kim Beazley, a former leader of Australia’s Labor Party, writes in an op-ed announcing the creation of a center for US studies at the University of Sydney that the US is coming to value its allies in a whole new way due to the consequences of the Iraq conflict. “One thing is clear now,” he writes. “The US values its allies more fervently than at any time since the Kuwait war segued out of the cold war. The allies wanted are those who will share burdens, military and political. The allies needed are those who will help refocus the US on the long-term issues of global politics, such as those emerging in East Asia. To be recognised as a needed ally will require friends to be both.”

But does Beazley mean “ally” in the formal sense or in the expedient sense? For my part, I don’t think the US can afford to limit its friends to whose with whom it has formal arrangements. US inattention to East Asia at the moment that China and India accelerated their takeoff has created a political vacuum that Beijing and New Delhi have hastened to fill — the US remains an indispensable player, thanks in no small part to its military power in the region, but it cannot abjure from working with all the region’s powers to shape the regional environment and keep the peace.

India, meanwhile, is moving the same direction in its thinking, learning to be slightly less self-reliant and work with other powers, the US included. An editorial in the Times of India today argues, “Nobody seriously argues that good relations and enormous trade between China and America have made China a vassal of the US. Why can’t our politicians, whether from the right or the left end of the spectrum, give India the same benefit of doubt when it comes to relations with the US?”

Washington, while still distracted by Iraq and the Middle East as a whole, appears to be coming around to a more serious approach to the Asia-Pacific region. There seems to be an appreciation of the goals the US should pursue in the region, and fewer hangups about the partners with whom the US should work to achieve those goals. According to the FT, President Bush is prepared to push hard in Sydney this week for substantive progress on an all-APEC trade agreement that could dovetail nicely with the latest push for progress on the Doha round (which has an unfortunate resemblance to the “Dead Parrot” sketch — “this is an ex-trade round!”). This is in no small part a function of the rising prominence of the State Department in managing the rest of the world while the Pentagon sorts out Iraq (although I must add that Pacific Command has been doing its part as well).

The most obvious example of how State has changed the thrust of US policy in Asia is, of course, the six-party talks, in which Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state of the Asia-Pacific region, has recommitted the US to the process of negotiating a cessation of North Korean nuclear activities. Now, with the latest bilateral understanding announced in Geneva — in which North Korea has apparently agreed to provide a full accounting of its nuclear activities by year’s end — the Bush administration will be working to make its partners in the talks to ratify the agreement and lean on North Korea to fulfill its commitment.

Japan, as the one power that has opted out, will no doubt find itself under increasing pressure in the coming months to play a constructive role in the process, which means backing down on the abductions issue. This eventuality has been building up throughout the year; Tokyo may put off making a decision for just a little longer (as Jun Okumura argues), but as long as the US remains committed to the talks, Mr. Abe will have to decide.

The danger is linkages: if Japan is ultimately pressured by the US to step down on the abductions issue, will the result be even more talk on the Japanese right about the unreliability of the US? (“We go to bat for you on the war on terror, and this is how you repay us?”) Ambassador Okazaki, Mr. Abe’s “brain,” essentially made this argument in an essay in Yomiuri on Sunday, arguing that the US-Japan alliance must come before any greater framework: “The balance of power in East Asia rests ultimately on the power balance between the Japan-U.S. alliance and China. That means we should never forget the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance, which is conscious of China’s possible threats.”

There is clearly a rift between how the Japanese right sees the alliance and how those in charge of US Asia policy now see it. The Japanese right, which threw its weight behind an active and militarily strong alliance in the early years of the Bush administration, now wonders whether it has been sold a bill of goods — wanting Armitage but getting Chris Hill. In Washington, meanwhile, both State and the military brass (both at the JCS and in Honolulu) seem committed to managing the region as a whole, a view that diminishes the role of the alliance with Japan as part of US strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.

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