Int'l Herald Tribune

A worthwhile tour of East Asia

Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Philip Bowring, International Herald Tribune

Hong Kong --- Given its inauspicious timing, President George W. Bush's East Asian tour can be adjudged a small success. There were no embarrassments, and the visits to Japan, South Korea and China have helped all parties to concentrate their minds on fundamental issues which had tended to get lost in the emotion and rhetoric following Sept. 11. It was a reminder that however important the war on terrorism, U.S. long-term global interests have not been drastically changed by it. A scattergun war would damage those interests. With Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's popularity on the wane, it was not the best of times for Bush to arrive. But the American's rapport with the prime minister gave value to personal diplomacy and reflected the feelings of an administration which accords Japan more status than did its predecessor.

Given how baffled Japanese are by their own problems, Bush was wise enough to avoid lecturing them on the subject or offering the contradictory solutions which periodically come out of the U.S. Treasury. In Korea Bush managed to undo some of the damage caused by his "axis of evil" speech. However lukewarm the words, he did support President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy." It may have been bizarre that he had to say the United States had no intention of invading North Korea. But the end result is that Koreans can now see that the "axis of evil" speech was more rhetoric than substance, and there is still scope for dialogue with the North, very slow though that will remain.

But do not imagine that China is now going to be of more help in pressuring the North. The Bush administration's attitude toward China had swung from an early naive and overt antagonism to a misleading camaraderie as China saw the gains to be made from publicly supporting the war on terrorism, particularly as that gave a new reason to oppress Uighur separatism. Now the attitude has come back to a more centrist position.

Bush has given face to China and acknowledged the importance of the relationship to both sides. At the same time, he underlined the U.S. commitment to Taiwan by repeated reference to the Taiwan Relations Act, and drew very public attention to the ideological chasm between the two countries as represented by attitudes toward religious and other freedoms. For once, too, a Western leader did not come to China as a salesman of airplanes and telephone systems. The Bush agenda on Japan, Taiwan and missile defense may well represent a coherent view of longer-term U.S. interests in East Asia.

But China in return is likely to take a tough attitude on strategic weapons sales, particularly given strengthened U.S. defense cooperation with India, and the presence of U.S. forces in Central Asia. China is being more accommodating toward Taiwan, in recognition of Chen Shui-bian's electoral success and its own economic interests. But on missile defense and other strategic arms issues, very hard bargaining lies ahead. Neither Russia nor China has any interest in joining the demonization of Iran, and pressure from both - as well as cash from Seoul and the West - is needed to nudge North Korea forward.

Trade disputes could increase, although with China now in the World Trade Organization they are can be more easily contained. In contrast to his bonhomie in Japan, Bush fought shy of President Jiang Zemin's attempted jollification of the proceedings. Jiang's successor is unlikely to have such a taste for karaoke or U.S. popular culture. But realistic and businesslike bargaining would make a change from the emotional swings of U.S.-Chinese relations in recent years. To that extent, everyone concerned may have learned a little from the tour.