Obscured by the unblinking spotlight on Iraq, the most significant strategic development of President Bush's second term is occurring in the shadows. If it can overcome the well-entrenched yet outdated policies of the past, the Bush Doctrine may be coming to East Asia, and the mere possibility is making foreign policy realists run the way the citizens of celluloid Tokyo used to run from Godzilla or the giant winged Mothra.

The president's just-concluded Asian trip bore signs that his devotion to democracy is beginning to shape American strategy beyond the "greater Middle East," calling into question the policy of economic engagement and the belief in the democratizing power of free trade that Washington has followed up until now. And military preparations are underway to give substance to the rhetoric of liberty.

By the very act of making Japan the first stop on his tour, Bush combined political symbolism with strategic intent. His speech in the ancient capital of Kyoto was perhaps the most important event of the entire trip. First, it asserted that the principles of individual liberty and natural political rights are universal. "In the 21st century, freedom is the destiny of every man, woman, and child from New Zealand to the Korean peninsula," he said. The implication of his words was obvious: If the principles of liberty can so deeply embed themselves in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Mongolia, then why can't the same happen in China?

Second, the speech defined Japan as a mature democracy that has set an example for Asia and is ready to play a more active role in the world. "A free Japan has helped transform the lives of others in the region," Bush said. Significantly, Bush found the measure of Tokyo's new role in its involvement in Iraq, where it has not only contributed money but also provided forces to a humanitarian mission in Muthanna province.

If the president was speaking most directly to the Japanese, he was also speaking to other U.S. allies in the region, again stressing the binding force of common political principles. The most significant of these other allies was Taiwan. It's been a long time since this administration has had much nice to say about Taiwan, ever since 2001, when the newly elected Bush promised to do "whatever it takes" to defend the island against Chinese aggression. Indeed, Bush's critiques of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian have contributed to political paralysis in Taipei. But in the Kyoto speech, Taiwan was held up as an example of a "free and democratic Chinese society" -- a model for the mainland.

The president returned to these themes of democracy and freedom at the conclusion of his trip, in Mongolia. Speaking in the capital city of Ulan Bator, Bush embraced the Central Asia republic as an ally: "Mongolia has made the transition from communism to freedom, and in just 15 years, you've established a vibrant democracy and opened up your economy. You're an example of success for this region and for the world. . . . The American people stand with you."

All this would just be high-flying rhetoric were it not for the fact that the Bush administration is coupling it with a realignment of U.S. forces in Asia and in the western Pacific. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been something of a reluctant warrior in the Middle East, but he and his lieutenants in charge of Asia are deeply engaged in the transformation of U.S. posture along China's periphery.

The rhetoric and the realignment have alarmed some traditional Asian hands, who have invested decades in a policy of engagement. A recent New York Times editorial reflected the concern, fretting that the "Bush administration has been going out of its way to build up its military ties with countries surrounding China." Leaving aside the editorial's assertion that the "two most troubling" examples of Bush's alliance-building are the region's two most powerful democracies -- Japan and India -- what is the alternative? Would the engagement crowd favor a unilateral approach to counterbalancing China's power? Does anyone really mean we should move out of the way and let authoritarian China become the dominant power in Asia?

Many foreign policy realists and Asia hands take China's view that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is worrisomely nationalistic. But in Bush's view, Koizumi is a longtime ally with "common values, common interests, and a common commitment to freedom," as he said in his Kyoto speech. These are the same words Bush used this past July in a summit with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which Bush's critics also faulted. Never mind the potential for a broad strategic partnership, the critics said, India is not committed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Yes, but like Japan, India is more likely part of the solution in Asia, rather than the problem.

A reshaping of the U.S. defense relationship with Japan has been in the works for more than a decade. The United States will reposition its forces and base a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in a Japanese port when the non-nuclear USS Kitty Hawk is retired from active service. The United States and Japan will also work together more closely on common security concerns.

This new combination of Bush Doctrine rhetoric and military reposturing represents more than a hedge against the traditional American approach to the region, particularly when it comes to dealing with Beijing. The shopworn "One China" policy endures, preventing the recognition of self-governing Taiwan as an independent country while fudging our position on Beijing's claims to the island. The president's rather mechanical recitation of this liturgy at Kyoto suggested how outdated and uninspiring that formulation is.

Before proponents of the Bush Doctrine break open the champagne, however, they must note a fundamental contradiction in Bush's approach that may derail the new tactics. It lies in the conflict between the Bush Doctrine's rhetoric and what one might call the theory of "democratic inevitability." In a nutshell, this theory asserts that economic liberalization in China will pave the way to political liberalization.

Born of economists and beloved by foreign policy bureaucrats, this theory has been a major element in American thinking about China, more so in recent years. Indeed, Bush revealed that he is of two minds on China's strategic direction when, against the backdrop of the counterbalancing policy he is putting in place, he asserted in Japan that "as China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed."

The most appealing aspect of the theory of democratic inevitability is that it absolves the United States of having to do anything unpleasant that would complicate relations with the ruling clique in Beijing. It also breeds bureaucratic complacency. If economic liberalization is leading to democracy in China, then there's no need to worry about China's growing economic, diplomatic and military power. China's rise can be seen as benign, part of a march to freedom rather than a march on Washington and its allies. In the face of a rising challenge, it's always easier to do nothing.

But that vision represents a triumph of hope over experience. By most measures, China is less open and democratic than it was before it crushed pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Reports from organizations such as Freedom House and Human Rights Watch as well as the State Department and congressional commissions provide ample evidence of the resilience of authoritarianism and the persistence of repression in China.

A "hedging" strategy -- embracing and balancing two contradictory views of China's rise -- is also hard to sustain over time. If China's not an enemy, why arm ourselves and bolster alliances against it? If it is an enemy, why are we trading so promiscuously with it?

If the competition between China and the United States turns to confrontation, for example over Taiwan or over the intensifying Sino-Japanese rivalry over natural resources in the Sea of Japan, the American public and America's allies will be ill-prepared for sterner action that the United States will have to take.

The shoring up of our alliances along China's periphery indicates that the Bush administration isn't willing to hitch its Asia strategy to a hope. And if its steps are still tentative, at least the administration (partly at the prodding of such allies as Japan) is asking the right questions: What if China is not democratizing while it becomes more powerful? What if China is "biding its time" -- as Deng Xiaoping instructed it to do -- until the day it can more directly confront the United States?

The Pentagon's restructuring in Asia and the president's trip imply that the administration can be quite sober about what China's rise really means. Make no mistake, the competition already underway with Beijing is critical: America has a vital interest in sustaining its place as the guarantor of Asia's security. Its leadership has led to the region's peace and prosperity. And still there is more at stake. China is an increasingly important player in the Middle East and indeed globally. Ultimately, if the Bush Doctrine is not successfully applied to East Asia, and China can export its bad behavior to the Middle East, the strategy of promoting democracy will fail there, too.

Authors' e-mails:

dblumenthal@aei.org; tdonnelly@aei.org

Dan Blumenthal and Tom Donnelly are resident fellows at the American Enterprise Institute.

Increased power: China's economy is burgeoning -- as is its military strength.

Keynote in Kyoto: Speaking in the Japanese city,

the American president said, "As the people

of China grow in prosperity, their demands for

political freedom will grow as well."