U.S. reviewing ties with China, Japan

OTTAWA JULY 6. With an eye on the long-term interests in East Asia, the United States is taking steps to come to grips with differences and tensions with two key nations - Japan and China.

The airman, Sgt. Timothy Woodland, suspected of raping a Japanese woman in Okinawa, was handed over to the Japanese authorities after days of heated debate and concerns in Tokyo that bilateral relations would be harmed if Washington did not move in this direction. ``We understand the very serious nature of this incident...and we are in the most serious negotiations with the Japanese government about this,'' said the Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell.

The Japanese Defence Minister, Gen. Nakatani, minced no words when he apparently warned the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defence, Mr. Paul Wolfowitz, of the potential damage to the strategic alliance if the airman was not handed over promptly. Tension has been running high in Okinawa for the last several days and only added more fuel to the movement that calls for shutting down the facilities of the U.S.

This is not the first time the American service personnel in Japan have been accused of misbehaviour. But rape or accusations in that direction are taken seriously by local authorities. And officials and politicians on both sides have been quite careful of the sensitivities and domestic compulsions. To the Bush administration, it was not merely a question of seeing the Japanese demands on Sgt. Woodland in a legal context or in the framework of the agreement of 1995.

There was a political and strategic dimension as well and against the backdrop of vigorously pursuing the traditional relationship with China which the Republicans have said was abandoned during the eight years of the Clinton administration. The allegations of rape against Sgt. Woodland did come up for a brief discussion at the recent Camp David summit between the U.S. President, Mr. George Bush and the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr. Junichiro Koizumi.

If the administration is keen to see that the Okinawa incident did not slip out of control, there are definite indications that Washington is also trying to ensure that relations with China are back in a manageable framework. In a telephone call to his counterpart in Beijing, Mr. Jiang Zemin, Mr. Bush is said to have emphasised that bilateral relations ``are vital and that there should be a good dialogue between the two countries''.

Mr. Bush called Mr. Jiang to talk about several things, one of which being the trial of two American scholars of Chinese origin and cases pending against another two. Mr. Bush is visiting China in the Fall in connection with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum and the meeting of the leaders. He will be in Shanghai and later make an official visit to Beijing.

One argument has been that China has timed the trials of the scholars in such a fashion that it will be over by the time Mr. Bush makes his Asian trip. The impression is that the Chinese will expel the accused after the trial is over.

As a way of putting relations back on track after the April 1 incident in the South China Sea involving an American navy surveillance plane, Gen. Powell will be visiting China this month for talks with Chinese officials and leaders. Meanwhile, the Head of the Policy Planning at the State Department, Mr. Richard Haass, has just returned from China after a quiet and unannounced visit.

In the last two weeks, positive signs in U.S.-China relations have emerged. These included the return of the EP-3E, though in crates, and China voting along with the U.S. at the United Nations on sanctions against Iraq.