George W. Bush and Asia: An Assessment
On November 9, the Asia Program hosted a daylong conference on the George W. Bush presidency and East Asia – the policies, the assumptions behind the policies, the key personnel, the style, and the results of the first term. A distinguished roster of diplomats, scholars, congressional leaders, and past and present policy practitioners were asked to issue a preliminary report card on the Bush administration's Asian policies, and on how successfully the administration has safeguarded key U.S. interests in the region.
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, in the conference's opening address, asserted that America's Asian alliances have been strengthened over the past four years, a judgment with which – except for the important exception of South Korea – most other participants agreed. Conference speakers gave the administration particular credit for the revitalization of the U.S.-Japanese partnership. The Bush administration also received praise for its handling, after a rocky start, of relations with China. Rarely has the United States simultaneously enjoyed good relations with both Japan and China, Robert Sutter observed, but today it does. And the same is equally true, Sutter continued, for U.S. relations with China and Taiwan, and with India and Pakistan. Harry Harding, in a presentation highlighting both the continuities and the changes in the Bush approach toward Asia in comparison with Bill Clinton and earlier presidents, noted that the administration has completely abandoned the phrase "strategic competitor," the rubric that Candidate George Bush four years ago routinely employed in describing China.
The war on terrorism, quite naturally, figured heavily in the day's discussions. Secretary Kelly asserted that there has been a widespread rejection of Islamic radicalism in Southeast Asia since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But several speakers, including the Indonesian Jusuf Wanandi and the Singaporean Evelyn Goh, cautioned that Southeast Asians do not view the threat posed by terrorism with the intensity felt by most Americans, even though Southeast Asia has itself experienced terror attacks. As Goh remarked, the financial crisis of the late 1990s still overshadows 9/11 in the thinking of most in the region.
Wanandi and several other conference participants urged the administration to give Southeast Asia more attention over the next four years, and to broaden its focus beyond the law enforcement and military cooperation activities connected with the war on terrorism. Catherin Dalpino warned that the United States has bifurcated the region, paying considerable attention to those states that are potential or actual partners in the war against terrorism, but almost completely ignoring smaller and poorer countries such as Cambodia, Laos, and even Vietnam. Laos, she noted with regret, is one of only three nations in the world that does not enjoy Normal Trade Relations status with the United States.
As put by Singapore's Ambassador Chan Heng Chee – whose laudatory evaluation of the Bush policies in Asia reflected the official viewpoint of one of Washington's best friends in the region -- the U.S. agenda for the second term should be more directed toward addressing the concerns of mainstream Muslims in the region. Success in this area, she added, could provide the United States with a bridge to Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world. Richard Baker, on the other hand, reversed this sequence: until the United States convinces Southeast Asia's Muslims that its Mideast policy is fair and not inimical to Palestinian aspirations, Washington will find it very difficult to win the hearts and minds of Southeast Asia's 250 million Muslims. Numerous speakers observed that the war in Iraq has exacted a heavy price in terms of the American image in the region – though Sutter and others argued that Asian governments have followed a far more "pragmatic" policy in dealing with Washington, notwithstanding the anger at the United States widely prevalent in "the streets."
The promotion of democracy is a key element in the Bush approach to the fight against terrorism. Kelly declared that none of the trends in Asia in recent years is more important than the region-wide strengthening of democracy, and singled out the "remarkable" advances in democracy Indonesia has experienced, culminating in three separate and successful national (parliamentary and presidential) elections in 2004 alone. Yet according to Sutter – who generally gave the administration high marks for its Asia diplomacy – the U.S. position in Asia today is as strong as it is at least partially because Washington is no longer pushing the democracy and human rights agendas that in the past have created resentment in the region. Reflecting that perspective, Ambassador Chan urged the Bush administration not to "hold ASEAN hostage to Myanmar" – that is, Washington should not allow its support for a democracy agenda in Burma to get in the way of flourishing relations with the other countries comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Chinese scholar Jia Qingguo – who was unable to obtain a visa to attend the conference, but whose paper was summarized for other participants – referred to the "converging values" linking the United States and China, which some attendees interpreted as another sign of the diminished importance of human rights in Washington's dealings with Beijing. Jonathan Pollack also raised this issue of a "smiling China," and wondered whether the United States is finally "getting the China we've always said we wanted." Has Beijing, he asked, at last become a genuine stakeholder in the international system? Conference participants agreed that the answer to this question would go far in determining whether the twenty-first century repeats or escapes the unhappy experiences of the twentieth.
Kelly conceded that Asia will not be without its challenges during the second Bush term. Among those challenges will be reining in the North Korean nuclear weapons program; managing cross-Strait tensions between China and Taiwan; promoting genuine national reconciliation and democracy in Burma; and addressing various transnational problems such as proliferation, human trafficking, environmental degradation, and the spread of infectious diseases. Congressman James Leach, chairman of the House Asia subcommittee, underscored the significance of the last item on Kelly's list by bolding asserting that the most pressing issue confronting the world today is not war and peace, but disease control.
What the Bush administration has achieved during its first term in all these areas on its unfinished agenda, Kelly maintained, is to put in place structures and mechanisms that will help future administrations resolve these challenges. With respect to probably the most contentious – and arguably least successful – of its Asian policies, dealing with North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Kelly maintained, that the "process deserves very high marks," even if the results so far have been less satisfactory. But, Kelly added, the administration always realized this was a problem that would not yield immediate results. Other conference participants found this an excessively charitable interpretation of the administration's management of this difficult issue.
In his address closing the conference, Leach referenced words by two of Bush's most eminent predecessors as touchstones for the current administration. He first cited Thomas Jefferson's evocation in the Declaration of Independence of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." Leach paired this advice with that offered more than a century later by Theodore Roosevelt: "speak softly but carry a big stick."
In opening the day's proceedings, Kelly argued that the Bush administration has achieved a "solid record of accomplishment" in East Asia that has not been sufficiently acknowledged. On balance, discussion during the course of the day qualified but did not reverse that assessment. As for another Kelly statement, there was even greater consensus. Some have suggested that the United States is withdrawing from Asia, Kelly declared, but nothing could be farther from the truth. "We are an Asia-Pacific country. . . . We are a key player in the region, and we are in the region to stay." With this judgment, none of the conference participants – Americans or Asians -- disagreed.