US Jobs Theme of Trip to Far East
President Bush is embarking on a delayed trip to Asia, describing his major objective as the creation of more jobs for Americans
WASHINGTON — PUT it this way: It's a foreign trip that George Bush couldn't decently cancel. So, perhaps in an attempt to make a political virtue out of necessity, he's decided United States employment will be the theme of the 11-day Asian tour he departs on today."We're going to be taking a broad message on this subject of jobs," Mr. Bush said last week. Originally set for November, the trip was postponed somewhat hastily in the wake of election results that seemed to indicate voter displeasure with the economy and a presidential emphasis in foreign affairs. The reason for scheduling the trip seems to have been a belief that between the Persian Gulf war and the end of the cold war, East Asia might be feeling a little neglected by the United States. "We have not paid enough attention at the highest level to the Asia-Pacific region in the past year," said a US official at a recent briefing on the trip. In defense of the president's decision to bring a delegation of US businessmen along, officials have been quick to claim that the fundamentals of any good nation-to-nation relationship are economic. That's even more true of US-Pacific Rim relations, they say. It's true that America has an important economic stake in Asia, according to a recent Heritage Foundation analysis. US trade with Asia totaled $310 billion last year, as opposed to $220 billion with Europe. Still, "in terms of a diplomatic and international geopolitical trip, it's unnecessary," claims Burton Yale Pines, director of research for the foundation. The visit does come at a time when the US security posture in the East Asian region is changing. After nearly 100 years the US military presence in the Philippines is ending, with the Filipino government this week serving a one-year eviction notice for the big Subic Bay naval base. Clark Air Base has already been turned over to the Aquino administration - like Subic, a victim of rising nationalism and the damage wrought by Mt. Pinatubo. US friends in the region had long seen the Philippine bases as a bulwark, protecting against both Soviet influence and any Japanese inclination to play a larger military role in East Asia. Much of the US military air activity centered at Clark has been transferred to Guam. US officials are talking to both Singapore and Indonesia about using commercial ship repair facilities to accommodate Navy vessels. "We are going to stay in the region," said a US official. The president's first two stops, Australia and Singapore, are nations which have relatively close defense and trade relationships with the US. American officials say they hope to highlight economic opportunities for US business in these countries. Cambodia is one geopolitical issue that could come up, especially in Singapore; the Cambodian peace process is at a delicate stage, and after all the effort they've put into it, neither the US nor ASEAN nations want to see renewed fighting there. In South Korea, Bush's third stop, Seoul's strategy for reconciling with North Korea is sure to be an important topic, as well as efforts to stop North Korea's nascent nuclear-weapons program. "There are trading problems as well in Korea," said the US official. South Korea is the seventh-largest US trading partner, with $33 billion in trade. Trade laws have been so liberalized that it is likely the US will sell South Koreans more than Americans will buy from them, resulting in a positive trade balance, unusual for the US in that part of the world. In a backlash, Korean consumer groups have begun criticizing purchase of imports - a move the US will surely complain about to the South Korean government. US auto manufacturers would also like Seoul to reduce tariffs on their products. But it's Japan, of course, with which the US has the most trade differences. Bush's Japan stop is in many ways the focus of the trip, especially now that the president is carrying along an entourage of highly paid American CEOs. US officials have a laundry list of things they want to press Japan about: support for the US position in the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) talks; movement in the cantankerous Structural Impediments Initiative (SII) negotiations between the two nations, and access to Japanese markets for US rice, computers, and other products. In so publicly proclaiming that he will press Japan on trade issues, and that the trip is about "jobs, jobs, jobs," Bush has put himself in a delicate political position. On one hand, he can take some of the sting out of Democratic hammering that he is soft on the trade issue. But, on the other, he may not get any concessions of economic substance from the Japanese, producing at least the appearance of failure.