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Asians Feel Uneasy as China Rattles the Neighborhood

THE Japanese government is reacting to the tension in the Strait of Taiwan with characteristic delicacy. Tokyo's relationships with the three parties most closely involved - China, Taiwan, and the United States - place Japan in a uniquely awkward position.

Add to that a parliament deadlocked over a plan to use taxpayers' money to help the financial industry, and the result is a series of diplomatic niceties about the Taiwan-China situation being ''regrettable'' and moving ''in the wrong direction.''

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''So far the Japanese government has been totally occupied by'' domestic issues, says political scientist Takeshi Sasaki at the University of Tokyo.

It isn't easy for any country to handle a bellicose China, which has nuclear weapons and the world's largest population. The Chinese economy has expanded rapidly in recent years, giving the country increased international stature and money to modernize its large military.

Although that process is far from complete, some analysts have reckoned that it is only a matter of time before China matches its tough rhetoric with aggressive actions.

The events of the past few days have given those analysts - and military strategists in places like Washington and Tokyo - what could be a glimpse of the future. In an effort to influence the outcome of a March 23 presidential election on Taiwan, the military of mainland China has fired ballistic missiles near Taiwan and on March 12 began war games in the Taiwan Strait.

China's recent actions seem certain to influence the longstanding security relationship between the US and Japan, which hosts some of America's most crucial outposts in Asia. The two governments plan to reaffirm their security arrangements in an April summit between President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. ''I think the next meeting of the US and Japanese leaders will be dominated by the issue of how to handle the behavior of the Chinese,'' Mr. Sasaki says.

Tokyo and Washington insist that their pact, now that the Soviet Union is a memory, is based on common security interests and not a common enemy. American officials say they want to ''engage'' China, rather than contain it - the cold war approach used against the Soviets.

But analysts and officials, pressed to identify a single reason why the US and Japan should maintain their alliance, are increasingly willing to say that reason is China.

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''A growing number of Japanese defense specialists are giving more serious concern to China's future power,'' says Masashi Nishihara, a research director at Tokyo's National Institute for Defense Studies.

Japan's relationships with the three major players leave no easy solutions. For one thing, it is an ally of the US, which has suggested that it will not stand by if China uses force against Taiwan. But Japan is a pacifist nation with a Constitution - drafted by the US - that forbids taking part in collective defense arrangements.

Any American intervention would immediately raise difficult questions over the nature and extent of Japanese support for the US military.

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, passed by the US Congress, stated America's right to help Taiwan defend itself and declared Taiwan within America's sphere of influence.

The act does not call, however, for any specific American response.

Japan and China have been intertwined in complex political, economic, and cultural relationships for centuries.

Japan's occupation of part of China before and during World War II created resentment and bitterness, but the recent character of the two countries' relationship reflects a much longer history of trade and cultural exchange.

In 1993, for instance, Japan was China's biggest trading partner.

''China is a very important neighbor to us,'' says Foreign Ministry spokesman Hiroshi Hashimoto. ''We just hope the Chinese will understand the concerns expressed by the Japanese government.''

The rest of Asia is watching the war games closely, but not making any sudden moves. In Hong Kong, reaction has been muted: no official statements and only a small demonstration.

South Korea seems not to want to take sides. On Saturday, Foreign Minister Gong Ro-myung called the missile tests ''undesirable'' for regional stability. When asked how South Korea might respond if there were a war, Foreign Ministry spokesman Suh Dae Won said it was ''too hypothetical a question'' and that a war was the least likely scenario.

If there were a war, South Korea could be expected to side with, if not aid, Taiwan. South Korea is a fellow democracy, and its association with the US would pull it that direction, too.

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