The next U.S. president will have to strike a fine balance between improving ties with a rising China and maintaining relations with traditional ally Japan as Washington moves to boost its standing in Asia, experts say.
The challenge facing presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain comes at a time when polls show that Americans believe China is more important than Japan and amid rising concerns in Tokyo that Washington is losing interest in Japan.
Democrat Obama is supportive of the half century old U.S.-Japan alliance but also favors beefing up ties with Beijing.
As the United States becomes more dependent on China not only for supplying cheap goods but also for money to finance its deficits, the Illinois senator is pushing to bring China into the Group of Eight industrialized nations.
He is also inclined to support incumbent President George W Bush's strategy of using China's leadership in six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons drive.
Republican Senator McCain, on the other hand, is more cautious about relations with China as it evolves into a rising military power and poses a threat to U.S. influence in Asia.
The former Vietnam War hero is stressing a conventional bilateral alliance-first policy, with Washington having to give priority to beefing up ties with traditional, democratic allies such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Even as the American public begins to understand the multi-faceted aspect of U.S. engagement, cooperation and competition with China, the next president faces some tough choices while trying to balance ties with Japan, experts said.
For example, will he agree to sell Japan F-22 fighter jets -- as requested by Tokyo -- that are more capable than those in China's expanding air force, asked Michael Green, a former White House top Asia hand during the first Bush administration.
He also questioned whether the new administration would coordinate closely with allies Japan and South Korea before dealing with North Korea even if it risks slowing down the process of disbanding the hardline communist state's nuclear weapons arsenal.
"For the next administration that would come down to some tough specific calls," said Green, also an adviser to the McCain campaign.
The Bush administration angered Japan recently by removing North Korea from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list despite Pyongyang's refusal to fully account for the fate of Japanese civilians -- a highly emotional issue in Japan.
Japanese politicians saw it as a U.S. betrayal, with the main opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa saying the Japan-U.S. alliance "isn't really an alliance."
Amid the strained ties, a U.S. think tank published a poll on Oct 28 which showed 52% of Americans saying China was "very important" to the United States compared with Japan (45%).
When asked whether Japan or China was more important to the United States in terms of "vital interests," 51% of those polled named China, while 44% cited Japan, according to the study by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
But the council made clear that Japan's ranking in terms of importance to the United States was still ahead of other close allies like Israel (40%) and Germany (29%) and Saudi Arabia (44%).
"That to me is very striking," said Rachel Bronson, the council's vice president.
But Keiko Iizuka, a Japanese journalist currently a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said it was "not wise to compare" U.S. relations with China and Japan.
"China would never become the ally for the U.S. in the foreseeable future because this U.S.-China partnership is based on commercial, trade, economic ties whereas the U.S.-Japan alliance is comprehensive, including security, economic, cultural and social ties," she said.
Iizuka said the next U.S. president had to lay the framework for trilateral relations among the United States, Japan and China.
"It makes me think that this is one of the fundamental agenda items for the new U.S. administration to formulate a foreign policy that involves the element of trilateral relations," she said.© AFP