Too bad President Bush has downgraded security concerns in the Western Pacific to put the emphasis on his 12-day swing through Asia on trade-generated jobs for recession-plagued Americans. This may be good politics, and he may even open Japanese and Korean markets to more U.S. products. But the breakup of the Soviet Union has unraveled military assumptions in Asia as profoundly as in Europe, and they are deserving of top-level presidential priority.
As recently as two years ago, the United States was willing to overlook Japanese protectionism in order to secure Japan as the "unsinkable aircraft carrier" needed to confront the Soviet menace. Washington was committed to the nuclear-tipped defense of the Korean peninsula and counted on massive Philippines bases to protect the passage of ships through the Malacca Straits.
Today, Japan is merely a convenient overseas base in the process of shrinking as Japanese fears and American needs decline. The United States has already withdrawn its nuclear weapons from South Korea and is counting on Moscow and Peking to pressure North Korea into the abandonment of its nuclear program. Clark Air Base in the Philippines is already gone, a victim of volcanic devastation. The U.S. naval installation at Subic Bay will be turned over to the Manila government.
All these dramatic developments raise questions similar to those being heard in Europe: What is to become of the mighty Soviet war machine? What external threats does it still pose, and against whom? What kind of U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific will make sense in the post-Cold War world? To what extent can or will prosperous Japan take over defense burdens from the United States, especially with Americans rTC tracing part of their economic decline to a military budget proportionally six times greater than the Japanese?
These are themes that can be addressed definitively only by an American president. Although Bush should also focus on trade and jobs, however blatant the politics involved, we hope at some point in his Asian journey he will describe the future U.S. security mission in the Pacific.
Asia, not Europe, is where the two largest conflicts involving U.S. forces have taken place since World War II. The two Koreas, despite recent easing, still stand toe-to-toe. Cambodia's civil war still simmers. In 1997 Hong Kong will pass under Chinese rule. Before then, Russia may return the four northern islands it seized from Japan, thus opening vast potential for an inflow of Japanese capital in exchange for Siberian raw materials.
The sweep of change is immense and is worthy of close attention by the world's only remaining military superpower. We await word from the traveling president.