President Bush in Asia: A Reality Check for the Hard Line


Feb 24, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union Tribune on February 24, 2002.

President Bush's trip to Asia last week grew increasingly thorny as it progressed. The tour began in Japan, symbolic of the primacy that bilateral relationship enjoys within the administration's Asia framework. President Bush lavished praise on Prime Minister Koizumi, even comparing him to last year's American League MVP, Ichiro Suzuki. He thanked Japan for its unprecedented military help with the campaign against terrorism and its leadership in the Afghan reconstruction process.

Only in private did the president raise Japan's severe economic quagmire, and even then his tone was reportedly gentle. The overall message was unmistakable: Japan is the most important ally of the United States in the region.

The messages grew less absolute as the trip progressed. President Bush moved on to South Korea, unquestionably an ally of the United States, but a country with whom relations have lately been strained. President Bush got off to a rocky start with President Kim Dae Jung when Kim visited the White House last March and Bush publicly questioned the wisdom of negotiating with North Korea, embarrassing Kim. Then the State of the Union "axis of evil" phrase, which joined North Korea with Iran and Iraq, caused widespread consternation in South Korea, as evidenced by the street protests of thousands during President Bush's visit.

Although there may have been a variety of motives for the "evil" designation, not least the desire to include a non-Muslim nation on the list, it is not hard to see why the president might view the Korean Peninsula in Cold War terms. Stalinist, isolated, impoverished North Korea, with its million soldier army, looms over the South's Republic of Korea. More than 35,000 US troops along the DMZ have been there since the Truman era, preserving a fragile stability. The binary logic is compelling - the US stands firmly on the side of the democratic, capitalist, free South, holding strong against its adversary.

However, as President Bush found, a majority in South Korea, on the doorstep of danger, do not favor confrontation with the North. North Korea is by no means benign: it does proliferate its missile technology, it does maintain a huge army, it is likely developing weapons of mass destruction.

But the DPRK is not universally menacing either. It has not conducted any acts of terrorism that we know of since the 1980s. It has complied with international agreements on missile testing and, through the "agreed framework," on shutting its nuclear facilities. This constructive behavior is proof that past engagement policies have worked to some degree.

To his credit, the president did attempt to smooth over his differences with President Kim. He explicitly affirmed support for Kim's "Sunshine policy" of engagement. And he made clear that the United States was not contemplating using military force against North Korea.

But did the United States and South Korea come any closer to developing a common position or joint strategy toward the North? Though President Bush repeated his offer for North Korea to participate in talks with the United States, it might be expecting too much for North Korea to actively engage with a country that is demonizing it.

What we need is a constructive approach based on small, concrete steps that gradually eases U.S. and South Korean concerns about North Korean threats, but that does not set the bar so high that North Korea will not play. The utility of tough rhetoric in this construct is doubtful. Perhaps in the spirit of cooperation he developed with President Kim, President Bush will pursue this sort of effective common, or at least coordinated, strategy, and listen closely to those living near the enemy.

The trickiest stop in the president's Asia tour came last. Most administrations enter the White House vowing to be tough on China, and so did President Bush. The EP-3 plane incident early in the president's tenure in which an American military aircraft crew was held for 12 days on Hainan Island only tightened the grip of the administration's China hardliners. Cold War logic featured here as well - Communist China, with its 1.3 billion people and an unflagging determination to bring its "lost brother" back into the family, hovers over the young Taiwanese democracy. (Never mind that the mainland is the number one destination for Taiwanese foreign investment capital, which has totaled some $70 billion over the last 10 years.)

Sept. 11 shook these initial assumptions about the China relationship. In part because of its own fight against Muslim Uigher extremists in Xinjiang province, China has stood with America in its war against terrorism. It is difficult to tell how much solid assistance China has provided in intelligence sharing, but, unlike in the past, it has not protested American military action, and its strong influence over Pakistan has certainly been helpful.

The relevant question now is whether Sept. 11 caused a momentary positive fluctuation in U.S.-China relations or the beginning of a real warming trend. And how will the president's visit affect the answer to this question?

It is too soon to say, but the trip may perpetuate an enduring, if slight, shift. First, President Bush appears to place significant value in his personal interactions with leaders. This is somewhat true of all presidents, but with President Bush in particular, his personal interactions with President Jiang may improve the chances for a productive future relationship. Perhaps more important is what President Bush learned about Vice President Hu Jintao, the mysterious figure slated to become China's next leader.

Also, President Bush was able to see China for himself. Americans have few clear mental images of daily life in China. Being there, it is possible to see that while egregious human rights violations do regularly occur, most people are free to do what they please. In large Chinese cities, it is easier to get online than in Italy. Starbucks serves coffee and school children send each other text messages on their cell phones.

Only future actions will tell which U.S. policy toward China will win out. Will we treat China as the "strategic competitor" President Bush depicted in his campaign or, in the recent words of Secretary Powell, part of a "candid, constructive and cooperative relationship?"

At this juncture, the latter approach will more effectively further U.S. interests. We certainly have differences over Taiwan, trade, national missile defense and human rights, to name a few. But, as Sept. 11 showed us, we have common interests with China as well, most notably North Korea. Working together on the latter can help with the former. Importantly, China is now in a position to be helpful. With the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, and its massive domestic problems, including corruption, economic dislocation and pollution, international strife is the last thing that China wants or needs. Moreover, the status quo with Taiwan is holding. In the stilted choreography of cross-strait relations, China's recent recognition of Taiwan's currently governing Democratic Progressive Party was a very warm gesture.

While it can be tempting to apply a Cold War framework to political dynamics in Asia, the president saw the more complicated picture on the ground. At the conclusion of the trip, the realities of regional problems had not changed. Japan's economy is still a mess, North Korea is still a threat and our ongoing differences with China persist. But perhaps the trip will prompt a new approach - pragmatic, clear-eyed and not unnecessarily confrontational - that promotes U.S. interests.

Overall, the president's trip laid good foundations for productive relationships with all the countries he visited. Foundations, though, are only as useful as the structures built upon them.

Nina Hachigian is director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy where she directs and conducts research on issues of national security economics and technology in Asia. In 1998 and 1999 she served on the staff of the National Security Council.

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