Bush/Qian/NE Asia SCMP March 26

The meeting between President Bush and vice-premier Qian Qichen has naturally received extensive coverage. But in terms of impact on the evolution of events in northeast Asia it may not have been the most important bit of recent diplomatic travel. Indeed, it may hide the growing complexity of relations in the region.

The new US administration and China are probing the strengths and weaknesses in each others' stated positions. With the more hawkish members of the Bush team, headed by vice-president Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seeming for now to be the dominant policy force there is an outside possibility of serious mis-steps over Taiwan and the missile shield creating a major rift in relations with China.

More likely the Cheney/Rumsfeld combination is driven by an appreciation of real politik, and the need to start out with a well defined forward position and not be brow beaten by Beijing rhetoric. At the same time these experienced and hard-nosed operators are unlikely to sacrifice complex US national interests to ideology or a black and white view of China. Secretary of State Colin Powell will continue to counsel caution in all things.

At the end of the day, both sides probably have too much at stake to witness a major breakdown. The US has economic and missionary (spread of market economy and democracy) interests in engagement with China. China is not prepared to sacrifice modernization goals on the altar of reunification or in pursuit of strategic arms dreams.

The danger to relations probably lies more in the trade tensions, always susceptible to popular opinion in the US, that would come from prolonged US recession than from the arms issues, which are negotiable in private. More important than the Qian trip to Washington may prove the recent visits of Russia's President Putin to Seoul and Hanoi, and that of South Korea's Kim Dae Jung to Washington. These are reminders of how the interests of US friends and erstwhile enemies are shifting.

Let's start with Mr Putin. His latest Asian travels follow hard on visits to Pyongyang and Tokyo and the improvement of relations with China, and his determination, such as through arms sales to Iran, to show that Russia will not tolerate US efforts, whether on its own behalf or that of Israel, to tell it how to conduct relations with immediate neighbours.

It is easy to dismiss Putin's travels and more activist foreign policy as a personal public relations exercises, to project to the voters that the nation will not be bullied by the US and show that Russia is again playing an international role in Asia. Russia has no money, no ideology and little trade or technology to offer. Its strategic forces are of little use and its Far East fleet is in abysmal condition. Its presence at he Cam Ranh base in Vietnam is token. Yet Putin knows that Russia cannot ignore its Asia/Pacific interests and has two things that others need: arms and energy resources. Its potential strategic and blue water naval capability is also viewed with interest by those who want big players in the region in addition to the US, whose long term commitments to the area are not so clear, and China, whose ambitions are all too clear.

Putin has driven a small wedge between Kim Dae Jung and a US which has grown more cautious about "sunshine" diplomacy towards Pyongyang. Meanwhile the Koreans are unenthusiastic about the missile shield. This is partly because US use of the North Korean threat as justification for it complicates its opening to Pyongyang, partly because it is of limited practical value in defending the South from the North, and thirdly because it is so opposed by China and Russia.

Seoul is grateful to China, and a lesser extent Russia, for their influence on Kim Jong Il. Korea's economic relations with China are increasingly important and it sees strategic as well as economic possibilities in developing a relationship with Russia which began with Mr Gorbachev's visit a decade ago. On his recent visit to Washington, President Kim was polite enough to fall in line with the US. It still needs US troops, and Korean voters remain wary of the North But South Korean interests are a lot more complex than they were even one year ago, let alone a decade.

The Russians meanwhile are making friends with China by selling arms which in turn raise the likelihood of a Taiwan straits arms race. Russia needs the money and influence its arms provide, but it is unlikely to see China as a permanent friend. Meanwhile its cementing of relations with Hanoi through arms and other deals, further participating in Vietnam's offshore oil industry and likely to renew its presence at Cam Ranh Bay.

These are reminders that, from a distance, it shares the desire of the smaller littoral states of the South China Sea that the sea should not become a "Chinese lake". That's where its marginal interests intersect with Japan's key interests. Japan is simultaneously nervous of China's growing influence, wary of Korean reunification. It resents US presumptions and lectures but is both nervous of a gradual reduction in the US presence and nervous of vigorously backing the missile shield. But it is nervous of Russia too, for historical reasons. Beset with domestic difficulties, Tokyo seems to have little idea how to respond to a Bush administration whose make-up and statements suggests more concern with Japan than either Clinton or Bush senior displayed.

For all its dithering Japan is still by far the most important economic players in the region, and its naval capability far ahead of anything that China is likely to achieve for at least two decades. Its sense of need for an improved US counter to China's growing strategic arms makes the missile shield. more likely. The most likely alternative to a close US-Japan relationship is not a Japan-China alliance but Japan's development of its own strategic arms capability.

Meanwhile the one thing that China, Korea and Japan are all interested in is the oil and gas deposits of Sakhalin. From a strictly economic viewpoint, Sakhalin probably presents the best major new external source of energy to help meet China's needs. It certainly makes more sense than a pipeline from Kazakhstan's huge Caspian deposits.

The Sakhalin field is very close to Japan and is interesting for Korea which is energy import dependent and wants to expand its physical presence in the region. Russia meanwhile needs the money and ways of reviving its Far East economy. But do the neighbours trust the Russians enough to rely on them for as a major energy source? Western Europe has in fact been buying Russian gas for years. But given Russia's past, its disorderly present, Putin the gas salesman still has a job to do.

The current equation is not very comfortable for Taiwan, which is also feeling the economic pull of the mainland. Russia's ship and plane sales to Beijing, the Korea/China relationship, the political fragility of much of southeast Asia, Japan's lack of leadership all work against it. It will get some arms from Mr Bush, but probably not the advanced destroyers equipped with the Aegis radar system that many believe could set back the mainland's ability to mount an invasion or sustain a blockade for perhaps two decades.

However it is likely to get enough new weaponry to preserve its de facto independence for several more years. Taiwan in time may be able to turn the region's new complexities to its advantage. Amid all these cross currents, one optimistic element is clearly visible. Almost all parties - even perhaps Pyongyang -- are giving weight to economic issues. All sense both long term economic opportunity and short term fragility. China for instance is playing a long term international game knowing that the day when it can impose a Monroe doctrine on NE Asia is still far away.

Meanwhile its has domestic economic and social priorities. which would be setback if its rhetoric on the US and Taiwan were to be taken at face value. With the technology bust Taiwan is feeling vulnerable to the mainland and to a global downturn and Korea to the US. Russia needs to sell it gas to all comers. In the longer run, uncertainty is increasing but for now economic insecurity may translate into uneasy mutual accommodation. ends.  




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