Sunday, January 28, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 28, 2001

Mr. Bush, don't play by yesterday's rules

By Tom Plate

An aggressive tilt toward Japan - and away from China - could spawn trouble to the fearsomely delicate balance across Asia.

Not to be uncharitable, but President Bush has appointed so many old foreign-policy hands that one has to wonder: Is America asking too many of yesterday’s men - and women - to solve too many of today’s pressing problems?

It’s obvious that the Bush administration will push U.S. policy toward Tokyo and away from Beijing, at least incrementally. In addition, they will push ahead on defensive missile systems, despite the alarms sounded not only in Beijing but in the capitals of almost all of America’s allies.

And there’ll be no letup on public criticism of China on human rights: Just last week the new administration pointedly condemned Beijing’s hard-line stance toward the Falun Gong sect.

That blast from Washington harkened back to a past epoch when harsh rhetoric and public confrontation between China and America were everyday occurrences.

Of course, the issue with the Bush team isn’t age - even though some of these appointees toiled in the Ford administration back in the ’70s. It’s attitude. And they do have plenty of that. During the campaign, some were given to calling themselves "the Vulcans," after the Roman god of fire. Call it swagger, if you will.

But sometimes swagger scares people.

A top South Korean foreign policy aide, visiting Los Angeles last week, told me that South Korea admires the obvious professionalism of the new Bush foreign policy team, starting with Secretary Colin Powell.

But his government is becoming a little concerned about the message it was starting to hear.

An inept series of gestures toward Japan, however well-intended, that sends public and "in your face" signals to China could have disastrous results that absolutely no one should desire.

One unwanted consequence would surely be if the Tokyo tilt had the effect of upsetting the delicate balance of power inside China - making the real winner of the new Washington policy not Tokyo, but the People’s Liberation Army.

Clearly, the Chinese military establishment is held in balance by the Jiang Zemin crowd, which has emphasized economic development above all. But the PLA, like well-entrenched military establishments the world over, has its own agenda, and Taiwan is, by far, its most important job. If China should interpret a U.S. tilt toward Tokyo as part of a larger effort to empower Taiwan - and insulate it from gradual integration into the motherland - then the PLA’s role will grow accordingly.

Surely, yesterday’s men in Washington understand that many Chinese believe a lot of anti-Chinese influence seeps into Taipei from Japan, the island’s former colonial occupier. They know, too, that Beijing is well ware of the historic avidity of the Republican Party’s right wing for ideological anti-communism, so well evidenced by the overwrought 1998 Cox Report on Chinese spying.

Thus, it is quite possible for a Bush tilt toward Tokyo to be wildly misunderstood in China - and thus wind up enhancing the PLA’s claim for more resources, higher political priority and indeed greater power.

That would be an outcome neither Jiang Zemin nor George Bush wants.

After all, to counter the U.S. defensive missile buildup, Beijing would predictably increase its offensive missile arsenal. And, to register its concern about an emerging Washington-Tokyo-Taipei alliance, it could create new military difficulties in territorial disputes with U.S. friends in the South China Sea, or even on the Korean Peninsula; or perhaps unveil a currency devaluation that would roil the region’s economic woes. Some or all of these options are available to Beijing at the push of a button.

To be sure, any such development, if it happens, will be presented by Bush’s spin doctors as Chinese provocations. But in fact they will be direct - if not necessarily proportionate - reactions to new Bush moves.

Another worrisome question: Would such a scenario actually please some of yesterday’s men? It’s an awful thought, but, as veteran U.S.-Asia specialist Kent Calder, now at Princeton, notes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the prestigious U.S. establishment journal: "The Cold War created a static, stable, oddly comfortable world: antagonistic political affiliations (did implant) conflict in Northeast Asia, but at least they were strong and predictable. The new geopolitics, by contrast, is much more fluid."

Do yesterday’s men have a yearning for the relative certainties of yesteryear?

Japan, the world’s second largest economy, is America’s most important ally and primary partner in Asia, but it might well wish to decline the honor of a U.S. tilt if the result will be the upsetting of the fearsomely delicate balance across Asia. Some gifts are simply far more trouble than they are worth.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for The Honolulu Advertiser and the South China Morning Post (e-mail:

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