[OUTLOOK]U.S. is casting its eyes on AsiaDuring a 10-day visit across the United States from late last month to early this month, I took a look at recent U.S. policy toward East Asia. I also exchanged views with policy makers and researchers in many fields. I participated in a few meetings with members of Japan’s Diet, or parliament, who were visiting the United States at the same time, when they met Washington’s influential government officials.
When it comes to international issues, Washington officials still pay considerable attention to Iraq and terrorism. But, it was interesting to watch them gradually taking more interest in East Asia. Their biggest concern in this regard is the North Korean nuclear problem.
Though U.S. officials view the six-party talks as the only way to resolve the crisis, there are also indications they see the limitations of past U.S. policy and need for adjustment. They seemed anxious about the standoff in the six-party talks. They have growing doubts over China’s role in the six-party negotiations, too.
The U.S. government says officially that China’s role is important, but those hopes are falling quickly. Thinking that he would display leadership over the North Korean problem, President Hu Jintao of China planned to visit North Korea, but progress is still nonexistent. North Korea is perhaps displaying an attitude that goes against China’s expectations.
Speculation that North Korea may conduct a nuclear test is rising. The United States has publicly worried about the prospect. Against the backdrop of how the United States dealt with Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush has expressed a strong aversion toward the North Korean regime, arguing from a standpoint of democratic principles. But there seems to be no unified position because U.S. hard-liners and moderates are deeply split.
The North Korea nuclear problem could be submitted to the UN Security Council with the consequence being economic sanctions on North Korea. Support is rising for this option in Japan.
But even if the United States and Japan make a concerted effort to refer the North Korean problem to the Security Council, South Korea and China are likely to object.
The United States is also showing changes in its perception of China’s emergence. At present, there are three general approaches to the issue in the United States. One group argues for an “engagement” policy that puts great importance on cooperative relations with China.
A second group advocates coordination on the premise of valuing bilateral alliances between the United States and Japan and between South Korea and the United States, a position held so far by the U.S. Department of State.
The third view belongs to neo-conservatives who see the rise of China as a threat.
This last group has recently been gaining more support. Until now, the United States has maintained strategic relations with China because of anti-terrorism efforts and the North Korea nuclear problem, but its awareness of threat has been increased due to China’s rapid growth and uncertainty about the Chinese political system and the country’s future.
Recent improvement in relations between China and Taiwan has temporarily allayed U.S. worry about Taiwan.
These changes have contributed to shifts in U.S. perceptions of East Asia.
Preoccupied with Iraq and terror threats, the United States paid little attention to East Asia, but recently that situation has begun to evolve. Japan and South Korea have enthusiastically advocated forming the East Asian community. But, as Chinese influence grows, there is concern that East Asia might be turning into China’s political stage.
Relations between South Korea and Japan have also been a problem. In other words, if the disputes between the two countries continue, or South Korea-United States ties are damaged by conflict over issues related to North Korea and China, the United States will be in a difficult situation.
In U.S.-Japan relations, there remains the beef issue: Japan banned the import of beef from the United States because a case of mad cow was found. To maintain political relations that are said to be at the peak, the United States has dampened the complaints of American beef exporters. But I feel that if the ban on the beef import continues, U.S. patience could run out.
When the structure of the second Bush administration takes full shape, its characteristics will become even clearer. Nevertheless, it is certain that the United States is turning its attention toward Asia.
I expect the Bush team will more than anything else listen to the voice of Asia, including those of South Korea and Japan.
* The writer is the director of the Center for Area Studies at Keio University, Japan. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Ryosei Kokubun