Bush Draws US Closer to Japan ; New White House Sees Japan as the Crux of US Security Arrangements in Northeast Asia

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When the Bush administration gazes east, it sees a different view of the globe than its predecessors did.

The new team largely sees the world in terms of threats posed to American interests - and one ripe with opportunities to minimize those threats while fortifying ties with Washington's traditional post-World War II allies.

That is a welcome change of tone for some in Asia, particularly here in Japan. But for others, it raises concerns that the new president's hawkish line on security issues will spark tensions with China, and possibly put the breaks on the process of detente with North Korea.

The Japanese, as one analyst put it, were "vicariously voting for Bush" in the hope that they would rediscover their role as a more valuable player on the president's international team.

President Bush's election is being warmly welcomed in Tokyo, motivated in part by nostalgia for a time when Japan registered far higher on Washington's radar screen. That sentiment was especially felt in the last years of President Clinton's tenure. His deletion of a planned "stopover" in Tokyo during one Asia trip was seen here as symbolic of what relations with Japan seemed to have become: optional and taken for granted, like distant relatives one visits only when necessary.

Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell invited Foreign Minister Yohei Kono for a three-hour meeting and working lunch, making him the first foreign minister from overseas to visit his State Department, bested only by next-door Canada. "It signifies the Bush administration's decision to place priority on Japan-US relations," says Yasuhisa Kawamura, the director of the international press division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That Japan found such a keen welcome committee just four days into Bush's tenure was viewed as a harbinger of much closer ties.

"Mr. Powell said the alliance with Japan is the cornerstone of US- East Asian policy, and this is really substantiated," says Mr. Kawamura.

The refocusing of priorities is indicative of the extent to which the emphasis is expected to shift from economic engagement to no- nonsense security, especially with so many former military officials riding into the State Department on General Powell's coattails.

"The cold warriors who are coming back into the Bush Administration see the world in threat terms," says Ronald A. Morse, an expert in Japan-US relations at Reitaku University in Tokyo. In that analysis, however, Japan is mostly viewed as a way to check the growth of Chinese power. With some 97,000 US troops stationed around the region, Japan is the crux of US security arrangements in Northeast Asia.

But if the Bush administration decides to push ahead with proposals to build a national missile-defense system (NMD) - some say that will only drive China into a contest to catch up, fueling a new arms race. China has expressed vehement opposition to NMD, threatening to multiply its nuclear stockpile tenfold if the US pursues such plans. "This attempt to ensure security may, in fact, undermine it," wrote David Shambaugh recently in Foreign Affairs.

Other quandaries abound. …