Wed, Mar 13, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Six months on, has Asia changed?

By Ralph A. Cossa

"Everything has changed." This has become a familiar mantra in the six months since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But, while the way Americans look at the world may have changed fundamentally, the basic issues confronting US decision-makers in Asia, for the most part, remain unchanged.

Even the "everything has changed" slogan appears in need of modification. A Chinese commentator may have said it best: "Sept. 11 may have changed everything for Americans, but not for Asians. What has changed things for us is the way America res-ponded to Sept. 11."

The "either you're with us or against us" approach has caused even those who traditionally have not been sympathetic toward the US to appear supportive (or maintain a lower profile). But a look at regional concerns six months after Sept. 11 reveals more continuity than change.

True, Japan has become much more involved in international security affairs, in East Timor as well as in the Indian Ocean. But Japan's desire to become a more "normal" nation precedes Sept. 11. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged last spring that Japan would become a more equal partner to the US, while decrying the unrealistic nature of many of Japan's self-imposed constraints. If nothing else, Sept. 11 provided Koizumi with the incentive and political cover to move ahead more rapidly than planned.

The largest issue between Tokyo and Washington -- Japan's inability to make the fundamental reforms necessary to revive its economy -- remains essentially unchanged, however. While US President George W. Bush signaled early on that he would not resort to the failed tactics of the the Clinton administration -- Japan-bashing and Japan-passing -- his administration has been equally unsuccessful in convincing Tokyo to get its economic house in order.

In addition, many contentious issues surrounding the US bases in Okinawa remain unresolved.

While a desire to be on the right side of the war on terror may have also helped to temper Chinese and Korean (both North and South) criticism of Japanese naval deploy-ments in support of operations in Afghanistan, their long-standing concerns about Japanese remilitarization have, if anything, been strengthened. The war on terrorism may have further strengthened the already close bonds between the Bush and Koizumi administrations, but has not brought Japan any closer to its neighbors.

One could argue that the biggest change has been on the Korean Peninsula, at least in the wake of Bush's branding of North Korea as part of the infamous "axis of evil." But Pyongyang had been steadfastly rejecting offers by Washington to hold talks well before Sept. 11.

Nor can the north's decision in October to again call a halt to North-South high-level dialogue and family exchange visits be convincingly tied to Sept. 11. (Pyongyang tried to blame security conditions in the South for the breakdown but those conditions existed in late September when the decision to resume family exchanges was made.) In truth, Sept. 11 provided an opportunity for Pyongyang to improve relations with Washington; one that it chose not to seize, content instead with business as usual.

The major strains in US-South Korea relations also predated Sept. 11; they date back to President Kim Dae-jung's poorly-handled visit to Washington a year ago. The "axis" comment simply underscored the problem, rather than creating it. To his credit, Bush did a good job in toning down his comments regarding North Korea and, more importantly, in reaffirming his support for Kim when the two met last month in Seoul. But any goodwill created by Bush's visit was seemingly wiped out by speed-skating judges in Salt Lake City.

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