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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Forgets Russia Is Also Asian Power

President Bill Clinton this weekend heads for the troubled waters of the Yellow Sea, a region suddenly bristling with tension. He will confront a possible war zone in Korea, the threat of a new cold war with China, and will have to resolve a deep crisis in the 35-year alliance with Japan.


American troops in South Korea are on full alert along the demilitarized zone, and an aircraft carrier and naval task force still keep a wary eye on the tension between Taiwan and China. The entire region has become the leading security headache for an administration which had preferred to see Asia as an enormous economic opportunity.


The immediate military threat from North Korea, apparently triggered by floods which have produced widespread and destabilizing food shortages, will dominate Clinton's Asian trip. But of greater long-term significance is the underlying need to rethink the security relationship with Japan after the effective rejection by Tokyo of the Nye report, which had sought to chart U.S. policy toward Asia for the next decade.


Joseph Nye was brought from Harvard to become the Pentagon's policy intellectual, and his report suggested that the United States could maintain Asian stability by a policy of "deep engagement," keeping up to 100,000 military personnel in the region for another 20 years and more.


"The basic thrust of the Nye report on East Asian security that we can put U.S.-Japan security ties back on track with minor adjustments is misguided," said former Japanese prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa in a carefully prepared speech which is now being seen in the White House as Tokyo's subtly indirect statement of intent for a new and more balanced security partnership.


Calling for the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces and Marines from the Japanese islands of Okinawa, the Hosokawa speech suggests that Japan should reassess its constitutional restrictions on its Self-Defense Forces, and seek a far more equal and active role in the alliance.


In effect, he calls for the retention of U.S. naval and air force bases in Japan, and the pre-positioning of military equipment, but warns that the continued presence of U.S. ground troops more than 50 years after the end of World War II risks destroying the U.S.-Japanese alliance altogether.


"The emergence of China as a superpower -- whether it be nuclear weapons testing, the expansion of its navy, or its territorial assertions in the South China Sea -- reminds one in some ways of Imperial China in the past," Hosokawa went on. "The only option for Japan's security as a maritime state is to build strategic alliances in the Asia-Pacific by joining hands with the United States."


The curious feature of this new security debate in the Yellow Sea is the degree to which Russia has been excluded from the process. Not invited to join the Asian-Pacific Economic Conference, Russia barely seems to figure as a Pacific player in the thinking of the U.S. and Japanese participants.


This may be about to change, and not necessarily to the advantage of the United States and Japan. Shortly after Clinton leaves the region, Russian President Boris Yeltsin is due to arrive in Beijing, with new trade agreements and military export contracts already prepared for signing. It is always a mistake to forget that Russia is an Asian power, too.