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June 29, 1999
After Kosovo, US focus shifts to Asia
Asia could well dominate the US foreign policy as the pre-occupation with Kosovo and trans-Atlantic relations recedes.
The US administration faces three major challenges across the Pacific which, if not properly addressed, could create serious problems for its interests in the region and beyond.
The objectives are straightforward but daunting: end battles between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, coax China back into talks aimed at ensuring its membership in the World Trade Organisation, and dissuade North Korea from further tests of its new long- range missiles.
Washington is emerging from the Kosovo crisis, which has consumed top policy-makers in the White House, the Pentagon and the state department since the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation began its air campaign on March 24.
While Washington achieved virtually all of its main objectives in the war -- and appears even to have made progress in mending fences with Russia -- US President Bill Clinton and his foreign-policy team are widely seen as having been more lucky than skilful.
The result is that, as Clinton faces new challenges in Asia, he cannot count on support at home -- particularly not from Republicans -- who accuse him of being too friendly towards China and North Korea.
The Kargil conflict -- the most serious clash between Indian and Pakistani forces since their 1971 war -- affects US interests least directly but has top officials in Washington increasingly worried.
Washington has called on both sides to respect the Line of Control.
Last week, Clinton dispatched US Central Command Chief General Anthony Zinni to urge Islamabad to secure the retreat of all Pakistan-backed forces.
''It's pretty clear that if Pakistan doesn't back off, India is going to clobber them,'' says a senior official, who notes that New Delhi could take the battle to another point along the frontier, thus spreading and escalating the conflict between the nuclear neighbours.
''It's a very dangerous situation,'' according to the official.
While the South Asian crisis is more acute, Sino-US ties -- particularly the dramatic upsurge in nationalist and anti-US sentiment following the accidental bombing of Beijing's Belgrade embassy during the Kosovo war -- are of deep and growing concern here.
Beijing, already furious about NATO's failure to seek the UN Security Council authorisation to attack Yugoslavia, suspended all bilateral military co-operation and talks on its WTO membership -- Clinton's top priority -- pending a satisfactory explanation of the bombing.
Washington's first formal attempt to explain has been rejected by Beijing, adding to Washinton's concern that anti-US forces in the Chinese leadership have the wind in their sails.
The same forces have been strengthened by other US actions which they see as designed to 'contain,' if not destabilise, China.
These include the new US security pact with Japan, its weapons sales to Taiwan, which also may be included in a new theatre- missile defence system, its resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission condemning Beijing's rights performance, and Congressional charges of Chinese nuclear espionage.
China's diplomats in the US are irked by last week's US vote against a World Bank project which included a proposal to settle poor Chinese in an area considered by pro-Tibet activists to be Tibetan ancestral lands. The bank approved the project but put the transmigration plan on hold.
''There's clearly now a real debate (about relations with the United States) going on, and it is not yet resolved,'' says one veteran administration China-watcher, who notes that the time for reaching a WTO accord -- before the organisation's ministerial meeting in November -- is quickly running out.
During a trip here in April, Chinese premier Zhu Rongji laid out terms for a deal, which Clinton initially rejected. When US business protested vehemently, Clinton asked Zhu Rongji to intensify the talks. But the embassy bombing has made it politically impossible for him to resume negotiations.
Publicly, US officials are still optimistic that talks will recommence soon, but privately they say that Beijing is sending mixed messages. ''It's very difficult to know how this will come out,'' says the China-watcher.
There is similar uncertainty about North Korea, which is frequently mentioned as the country, next to Iraq, against which the United States is most likely to go to war.
Last month, Clinton sent former Pentagon chief, William Perry, to Pyongyang with the outlines of a proposed deal: Washington would gradually normalise relations, lift 50-year-old economic sanctions, and provide bilateral assistance if North Korea promised to stop testing and selling ballistic missiles and developing nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang greeted Perry warmly but, within a week of his departure, engaged the South Korean navy in a brief but lethal battle. It has since reportedly begun preparations to test a long- range missile capable of hitting the northwest coast of the United States.
''If that test goes forward, all hell's going to break loose,'' says one administration official, who predicts that a new launch would stop all efforts to promote detente - not just with Washington, but with Tokyo and probably Seoul, too.
A new obstacle emerged on Friday, when the state department revealed that a US citizen visiting a North Korean economic zone was arrested on June 17.
US officials are not despairing, however. Combined with signs of belligerence are more positive indications, including the successful completion of an unprecedented US inspection of a suspected North Korean nuclear site and the continuation, if delayed, of separate bilateral talks last week with South Korea and with the United States.
''There's a big effort under way to try to convince the North that a missile launch would not be a good thing,'' says the official. ''In spite of all this, there's a feeling that it really does want to engage us.''
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