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US Hopes Sway in Asia Matches Might

US-Japan boosted military ties Tuesday. But in Asia, US often loses on rights, trade.

If you're a taxpayer, maybe you know the answers. Why does the US government spend roughly $3 billion a year to keep 47,000 US troops in Japan, a country that in some respects is the richest on the planet? And what does it get in return?

Coming up with convincing responses to these post-cold-war questions has absorbed increasing amounts of time in Washington and Tokyo in recent years. Strategies have been issued and summits held, but still, questions linger.

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In New York on Tuesday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen repeated the rationale - the US military presence in East Asia means peace and prosperity for Americans and Asians alike - and showed off something new: The US and Japan have agreed on specific ways in which this country's defense-oriented military can support America in its role as Asia's police officer.

The revised Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation, spell out, for example, how Japan would help enforce a naval blockade, sweep the oceans for mines, and provide civilian airports to US planes in the event of a crisis.

The agreement should strengthen the US-Japan alliance, but it comes at a time when America's diplomatic power in this region seems weak. Several recent events show that keeping the peace doesn't always translate into political leverage.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations this July welcomed Burma as its ninth member over strong objections from Washington. Japan recently reached a "common understanding" with China regarding some aspects of that country's admission to the World Trade Organization, a step that appears at odds with the US approach. And Japan and other countries have rebuffed US requests that they withhold aid to protest the erosion of democracy in Cambodia.

"The US [military] presence is very difficult to use as a bargaining chip in specific instances where we want allies to do something they don't think is in their national interest," says Charles Morrison, a US-Asia specialist at the East-West Center in Honolulu. "The reason it's difficult is that we can't credibly threaten to withdraw," he says, because keeping troops in East Asia is primarily in the American interest.

Critics have wondered just what that interest is, given the cold war's end. US officials say that South Korea needs the presence of 37,000 US troops there to deter North Korea and add that America's overall presence in East Asia creates a sense of security they equate with oxygen - in that its presence is subtle and its absence is a big problem.

"The United States is and will remain a Pacific power and a Pacific partner because we recognize that shared opportunities beckon to us and shared dangers imperil us," Secretary Albright told a meeting of East Asian foreign ministers on Tuesday.

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The new guidelines, an updated version of an agreement first put together nearly 20 years ago, are partly designed to enhance military cooperation between the US and Japan. But they also alter a feature of the two nations' security alliance that has come under sharp criticism: It's a one-way street. A 1960 security treaty of mutual defense obligates the US to protect Japan, but asks little of the Japanese in return, except room to maintain bases here.

The new procedures are intended to show that the Japanese are engaged in their own security and willing and able to assist the US. "I think we have made enormous progress ... in terms of cooperation from Japan in various scenarios, and in terms of capabilities and support for the United States. I see no reason to cast any hesitation whatsoever on Japanese reliability," said Stanley Roth, the State Department's assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, in a recent meeting with reporters in Tokyo.

They are also intended to show that the US is getting something in return for its efforts to ensure the stability of East Asia. Of course, Japan spends a lot to help fund the US presence - even more than the Pentagon. Last year Tokyo contributed more than $5 billion in "host-nation support," but it saves money in other ways. Where the US spent nearly 18 percent of its national budget on defense in 1995, Japan spent less than 7 percent.

But until now, Japan has not had to lay much on the line. Thanks to its US-drafted, pacifist Constitution - which bars Japan from using force to settle international disputes - the country maintains a relatively large and entirely defensive military.

A pacifist Japan dependent on the US has suited many Asian countries, which remember vividly what it was like when Japan had a free-standing military and used it. That is why China has complained so loudly about the process of strengthening the US-Japan alliance, which has been in the works for about two years. The Chinese worry that Tokyo and Washington are getting together to "contain" them, the policy the US pursued against the Soviet Union.

Masashi Nishihara, an international-relations professor at Japan's National Defense Academy near Tokyo, agrees that Japan is becoming more of a deputy to America's global supercop. The question is, what sort of deputy? "China thinks Japan is going to be a big deputy," he says. "I don't think they'll be quiet about it."

But the guidelines do not plot out a revolutionary change for Japan's military, something that many people and politicians would certainly oppose. As it is, the government of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto may have a tough time pushing through legal changes necessary to implement the revised guidelines. "If you really look at the contents [of the revised guidelines], I don't think they suggest that Japan will play an assertive military role," says Professor Nishihara.

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