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Fight Evil or Win Friends: the American president has a single foreign-policy obsession: eliminating "evil." But on his coming visits to South Korea, Japan and China, he'll find that a more nuanced approach might pay off.

By Murray Hiebert/WASHINGTON

Issue cover-dated February 21, 2002

WHEN GEORGE W. BUSH ran for the United States presidency, he repeatedly declared that "alliances are not just for crises" and mocked outgoing President Bill Clinton for not stopping in Tokyo or Seoul after a long visit to China in 1998. Today, more than a year after taking office, as Bush prepares for his first visit to Japan and South Korea, and his second to China, his foreign policy is only just taking shape and it is dominated by one crisis: the battle against terrorism.

This battle will be the key organizing principle of Bush's trip-often at the expense of the region's priorities, such as how to increase foreign investment and trade. His first visit to the region, not counting a stop at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum's meeting in Shanghai last October, comes later in his first term than the maiden voyages of his recent predecessors. Unlike them, Bush has not delivered a major speech outlining his administration's views on Asia during his first year in office.

"He wants to get each capital to ally itself with the war on terrorism," says James Lindsay, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "The message on the trip will be that he's not kidding when he talks about the 'axis of evil'," says Lindsay, referring to statements in Bush's State of the Union address about North Korea, Iraq and Iran.

The trouble is, while rhetoric about the "axis of evil" may stir American audiences, a focus on terrorism won't be enough if Bush is searching for a coherent Asia policy or a way to iron out rough spots in bilateral relations. (Bush won't continue on to Southeast Asia, where U.S. security ties have been bolstered-and nationalist anxieties piqued-by the war on terrorism.)

The Bush administration came into office promising to make Japan the cornerstone of U.S. policy in Asia, and Japan will be Bush's first stop, from February 17-19. A high-powered bipartisan group headed by Richard Armitage, now deputy secretary of state, drafted a report shortly before Bush took office urging the new administration to turn Tokyo into a more active player in Asian security.

Japan's strategic importance to Washington has been dented by its limited role in the war against terrorism, even though the U.S. appreciated Tokyo's willingness to buck its recent pacifist history and dispatch navy ships to assist U.S. forces in Afghanistan. "Sending a few ships to the Indian Ocean was symbolic, but it had nothing to do with the success of the operation in Afghanistan," says Edward Lincoln, a Japan specialist at Brookings. "Japan was entirely peripheral to the September 11 story."

Moreover, with terrorism on his mind, the last thing Bush needs is a financial crisis in Japan. Japan's decade-long economic slide seems to have knocked some of the shine off U.S. enthusiasm for its alliance with Tokyo. As shown by the criticisms of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in Tokyo last month, Washington is increasingly frustrated that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has not used his high popularity ratings to tackle Japan's economic crisis. Now, Koizumi has lost a good deal of public support and backing for his reform effort has been damaged.

"Throughout the U.S. government, there's great awareness about the balance of risks from the financial problems in Japan," says Adam Posen, a Japan expert at the Institute of International Economics. "People are vocalizing concern about what happens if Japan creates a vacuum for China."

Bush is expected to be the first U.S. president to address the Japanese Diet since Ronald Reagan spoke to the parliament in the 1980s. Posen says Bush has three options for the speech. He "can pretend that nothing's wrong" and declare that "Japan is still a great ally." Or "Bush can take Japan's financial crisis very seriously and ask Koizumi to act to prevent a crisis in Asia."

Thirdly, the president can offer "short-term praise and positive reinforcement" and "say that Koizumi understands the importance of Japan's nonperforming-loan problem" in holding back the country's economic recovery. Posen believes this is the most likely option Bush will pursue because, with Japan at least, he won't be seeking to stir up trouble.

In South Korea, Bush's vilification of North Korea is sure to cause friction from the moment he arrives on February 19 for his two-day visit. The U.S. president's failure to spell out what Washington plans to do about the regime in Pyongyang has heightened anxiety in South Korea.

Analysts point out that the Bush administration, which came into office trumpeting its sensitivity to nurturing alliances, has been remarkably "tone deaf" on the implications of the president's comments for President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine policy" toward North Korea.

"Schizophrenia would not be an impolite term" to describe U.S. relations with South Korea, says Ralph Cossa, an Asia specialist at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Hawaii. "Bush says the right things about the

Sunshine policy but, on the other hand, brands North Korea as part of the 'axis of evil.' From the South Korean point of view that undermines Kim," says Cossa. "The real challenge is whether Bush can walk both sides of the street at the same time."

Since the early days of the Bush administration, Washington has been buzzing with talk of a policy split between moderates represented by Secretary of State Colin Powell and hardliners such as Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on issues such as China and North Korea. Most analysts believe this hypothesis exaggerates reality. "There's a difference between Rumsfeld and Powell not on what to do, but how to do it," says Lindsay of Brookings. "Powell understands that it hurts more than it helps if the U.S. irritates its allies . . . But people who think that Powell will save them from the assertive Bush unilateralists are sadly mistaken."

Cossa says it will be important to watch how much Bush emphasizes support for dialogue between North Korea and South Korea while he is in Seoul and how much he talks about the "axis of evil."

"Bush doesn't want to be seen disrespecting an ally," Cossa says. "The nuanced approach doesn't seem to be Bush's strong point-he says what he thinks. But he could gain some points in South Korea by emphasizing willingness to talk to North Korea 'any time, any place' without preconditions."

Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute, expects that the talks between Bush and Kim will be contentious. "Bush will remind Kim that the U.S. is at war, that he's keeping score and that South Korea, as a treaty ally, hasn't been conspicuously helpful," Eberstadt says, pointing out that one of Kim's suggestions was that Washington try to sign an anti-terrorism treaty with Pyongyang. "My guess is we're in for some bracing conversations."

Ironically, it is with Beijing, with which the new administration clashed last April over the mid-air collision of an American spy aircraft with a Chinese fighter, that tensions seem to have eased most since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Bush arrives on February 21, the 30th anniversary of the late President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit. Some of the president's advisers had recommended that Bush skip China because he had already been in Shanghai for the Apec meeting four months earlier, but officials say the president personally insisted on visiting Beijing to "maintain momentum." During the Shanghai visit, Bush began talking about a "cooperative, constructive relationship" with Beijing, abandoning his earlier "strategic competitor" slogan.


Of course, deep misgivings persist. Bush is expected to raise several of the thorniest problems plaguing bilateral relations. Human rights, especially religious persecution, is likely to come up. Also raised will be U.S. charges that China continues to export weapons of mass destruction to Pakistan-a concern that has not changed despite the war in Afghanistan-and to Iran. "The U.S. will seek to sustain China's cooperation in the war against terrorism," says Bonnie Glaser, a Washington-based consultant on Asian affairs. "Proliferation is linked to concerns about fighting terrorism. Bush will try to get China more on board."

China is pushing for cooperative agreements on environment, energy and Aids, while Bush is expected to give a speech to students at Tsinghua University and invite Chinese President Jiang Zemin to visit the U.S., including Bush's ranch in Texas, later this year. James Mulvenon, a Chinese security expert at think-tank Rand Corp., says the two countries view the current "tactical shift towards a notion of cooperation" as "an opportunity to build up political capital to spend down in the next phase of the war when they have to address hard issues."

If political capital abroad is what Bush has in mind, expect a week of smiles and cautious diplomacy. But if he's thinking about politics in his own capital, there could be some fireworks.

Copyright C2002 Review Publishing Company Limited, Hong Kong. All rights reserved.



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