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How to Defang Tigers

SIX of the nine largest armies in the world (excepting the superpower United States) drill with worrisome intensity in Asia.

Until fairly recently, this bothered only specialists. But no longer.

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China is threatening to lob missiles at Taiwan and makes a show of training seriously for invasion. North Korea reminds us it is capable of invading South Korea and attacking Seoul. India and Pakistan continue to buy and/or develop missiles and warheads. South Korea challenges Japan over barren islands (potential oil) in the Sea of Japan. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam quarrel over other islands (also oil) in the South China Sea.

In short, the historic economic, educational, and cultural growth of the Asian tigers is put at risk as some in their neighborhood posture like saber-toothed tigers.

None of these threats, quarrels, and feints makes any strategic sense. The waste in blood, treasure, and future development from even the smallest of these potential power plays would far exceed the gain to its perpetrator. And even nonparticipants would likely suffer from diminished trade and investment, and from the cost of further defensive arms races.

America's skillful defense secretary, William Perry, has just floated publicly a simple but effective idea for curbing these multiple dangers to the Asian boom. He proposes that defense officials of China, the US, Japan, and the smaller Asian nations meet regularly to talk over - and defuse - territorial and weapons questions.

Perry has already quietly tested his proposal on the giant of the neighborhood, China. The initial reception, we're told, was cool. That suggests a prompt follow-up from President Clinton to China's President Jiang Zemin, inviting the latter and Japan's prime minister to help iron out a system for regular, quiet US-Asian defense-minister talks. Mr. Clinton goes to Tokyo soon to reaffirm America's bond with Japan. He should seize that opportunity to push Perry's plan.

Over time, at least Asia's Big Six should become involved. They are, in order of military size: China, India, Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, and Pakistan.

Critics of China's human-rights and patent/copyright record warn against dealing with China before problems in those areas are settled. But that mixes priorities. The US maintains 100,000 troops in Asia. It should not risk having them drawn into battles that can be headed off by early discussion. Nor does anyone benefit if Japan is pushed toward nuclear arms. And global trading nations should place highest priority on making sure the great renaissance of Asia is not derailed.

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Secretary Perry has the right idea. Let's move on it.

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