Into Dangerous Waters

Once again, it seems to be test-the-boundaries time in East Asia. A Japanese Coast Guard plane discovered a Chinese satellite-tracking vessel 12 miles off Okinawa on Friday and warned the ship away. The same day, in the skies above the Yellow Sea, a pair of North Korean fighter aircraft zoomed into a disputed area of South Korean airspace and out again. The micro-incursions could be shrugged off as accidents except for one detail: they came on the eve of President George W. Bush's first trip to the region in two years. The trespassers were a quiet reminder that terrorism and nuclear proliferation aren't the only unsolved foreign- policy problems facing the United States.

Uncontrolled forces are reshaping the Pacific's western shore faster than Washington can think what to do. As China conducts an all-out drive to become Asia's No. 1 economic, military and diplomatic power, its smaller neighbors can only do their best to find a way to benefit--and avoid getting squashed. North Korea continues to blackmail its neighbors with doomsday visions of a self-immolating war or--almost as scary--a political and economic collapse more costly than any physical disaster the world has seen in decades. But a newly unpredictable element may be Japan, which (after years of prodding from Washington) has begun adopting an assertive new military stance.

The changes in just the past few weeks have been startling. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party unveiled its final draft of a revised constitution to replace the one that was written under tight U.S. supervision after World War II. The original framers pledged the country to be "trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world." The new version would explicitly allow Japanese troops to take part in international peacekeeping operations: Chapter II, previously headed "Renunciation of War," would be retitled "National Security." A day after the unveiling, U.S. and Japanese officials announced a sweeping new defense agreement. The number of U.S. Marines in Japan is to be cut by half, to about 7,000. Nevertheless, the purpose of the agreement is not to weaken the country's defenses but rather to give Japan's armed forces a far more active role in maintaining their country's security. The plan calls for greater intelligence sharing, intensified joint training and more unified command and control. "Our goal was alliance transformation and realignment, and we have done just that," says the Pentagon's chief negotiator, Deputy Under Secretary Richard Lawless.

Five years ago, in a document now known as the Armitage Report, a group of conservative thinkers in Washington offered their blueprint for Japanese-American cooperation: "We see the special relationship between the United States and Great Britain as a model for the alliance." Armed readiness is clearly essential to that kind of strategic partnership. As appalling as the thought of remilitarization may be to the many Japanese who still believe in their Constitution's pacifist ideals, a new sense of toughness is growing. In a recent speech, chief cabinet spokesman Shinzo Abe openly criticized the old pacifism, noting it didn't stop North Korea from kidnapping Japanese citizens. "We were thinking that as long as we're good boys and girls, no one is going to hurt us," he said. "But we found out that that wasn't the case."

Japanese officials haven't said such things in public for the past 50 years. "Ten years ago, if a person had said to you what I have said tonight, he might have had to resign," Abe said. But far from stepping down, he's a leading contender to succeed Junichiro Koizumi next year when the prime minister must resign as leader of the LDP. Still, Japan's new attitude may actually be strengthening Beijing's hand in parts of Asia where the abuses of imperial rule are not forgotten. The Chinese certainly remember: in cities across the country last spring, old grievances boiled over into anti-Japanese riots.

Aides say Bush is hoping to be a reconciler on this trip. The plan is to shake a lot of hands and show the cameras a friendly American face all the way from Japan to Mongolia. The president will show up for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Busan, South Korea, but aides say he's not planning to talk about anything much more controversial than bird flu--at least not there. In Japan the president is planning to deliver the key speech of the trip, according to White House aides: a major address on his "freedom agenda." The message will be that Asia's future success depends on rights that barely exist in places like China, Burma and North Korea. When he arrives in Beijing on Nov. 19, he's planning to underscore the lesson by attending church services. That's hardly going to calm China's nerves. But it certainly is a way to test the boundaries.