Asia Program

George W. Bush and Asia: A Midterm Assessment

Feb 21, 2003

WASHINGTON, D.C.— The Asia Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars announced today the publication of a new study assessing U.S. policies in Northeast and Southeast Asia during the first two years of the administration of President George W. Bush.

The midpoint of George W. Bush’s presidential term offers an opportune moment to take stock of the administration’s Asia policy.

  • How does the Bush administration conceptualize American interests in Asia and the U.S. role in the region?
  • What have been the defining characteristics of the administration’s policy toward Asia? Its principal achievements? Its shortcomings?
  • To what extent have the events of September 11, 2001, shaped, dominated, or skewed the administration’s approach to the region?
  • Has the administration correctly identified the most important issues on America’s Asia agenda?
  • To what extent does its vision of Asia parallel the vision held by the peoples and governments of the region?


George W. Bush and Asia: A Midterm Assessment contains essays by twelve policymakers, scholars and Asia analysts, including a contribution from Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James A. Kelly. Collectively, these essays identify themes and patterns that provide insights into Bush’s Asia policies and begin the task of placing the administration’s policies into broader perspective.

Bush’s Asia policy is still very much a work in progress. Nonetheless, most of the essays in this volume underscore certain characteristics of the Bush approach toward Asia:

  • After two years in office, the administration has not yet articulated a fully developed vision of Asia or of American interests in the region. The needs of the moment – most notably, the requirements of combating terrorism – have pushed into the background the effort to fashion an overall strategic framework for advancing American interests in Asia.
  • The stark neo-realist analysis characteristic of Bush’s first months in office has, in the post-9/11 era, been significantly modified by an emphasis on common values drawing the major powers of Asia together. In some instances this has had the effect of accenting the continuities between Bush’s policies and those of President Clinton.
  • Counter-terrorism has provided the organizing concept guiding much of the administration’s policy toward Asia since the September 11 attacks. On balance, the administration has done a good job of persuading Asian governments to enlist in the war against terrorism. Nonetheless, this single-minded focus on terrorism has led to the downplaying of other agenda items, which ultimately may make the achievement of even U.S. counter-terrorism objectives more difficult.
  • The administration’s Asia policies have suffered from an imbalance, with security concerns crowding out economic issues. As a consequence, neither the United States nor the region is prepared to weather another regional financial crisis comparable to that which struck in 1997. Nor has either taken steps to make such a crisis less likely.
  • Despite its stated intention to strengthen its major Asian alliances, the administration has only partially succeeded in this task. This is a matter of some urgency with respect to the highly troubled relationship with South Korea.
  • U.S.-China relations today enjoy a stability that bears little resemblance to the paradigm of China as a “strategic competitor” articulated during the 2000 presidential campaign, and the administration deserves high marks for handling this difficult relationship with adroitness. Nonetheless, fundamental differences between Washington and Beijing lie just below the surface of this apparent commonality of interests, and it will probably not require much provocation to see a resurgence of the “China as potential threat” viewpoint formerly advocated by many of the administration’s senior officials.
  • North Korea stands as both the administration’s most glaring failure in Asia and its most pressing concern in the months ahead. The administration’s approach to the North Korea problem has been marked by confusion, mixed messages, and an absence of strategic thinking, a failure that has left it ill-prepared to deal with the crisis occasioned by the discovery of Pyongyang’s clandestine enriched uranium program.

    George W. Bush and Asia: A Midterm Assessment is edited by Robert M. Hathaway, director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, and Wilson Lee, program assistant in the Asia Program.

    Download the full report (PDF).

    For further information, contact the Asia Program at asia@wwic.si.edu or by phone at (202) 691-4020.



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