Bush tours a more secure Asia
His trip, which ends at the Olympics, is intended to showcase achievements in the region.
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The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Bush had "rudely interfered in China's internal affairs" by meeting with "anti-China hostile forces." Those comments contrast with the Chinese government's satisfaction over Bush's decision to attend the Olympics despite calls from some human rights groups for him to stay home in protest of Chinese policies.Skip to next paragraph
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Bush has skillfully maneuvered competing interests, some analysts say.
"I think it's the right balance," says Michael Green, an Asia specialist at the National Security Council (NSC) until 2005 and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Bush's meeting with dissidents sends "a very strong signal to the Chinese leadership," he notes, while his decision to attend the Olympics "is extremely well received among the Chinese people."
White House officials say Bush heard the point made by activists that his presence at the Games legitimizes Chinese government actions. But he decided that without good relations with China, the US's ability to argue for policy changes on rights or Tibet is reduced.
"If you don't have a good working relationship with the Chinese government, how do you do that?" asked the NSC's senior director for Asian Affairs, Dennis Wilder, at a White House briefing last week. The US is looking not just for "gestures" from China, he added, but for "structural change. We are looking for long-term change."
In South Korea, Bush can expect protests during his visit, though Green says it would be simplistic to view those as anti-American. Bush had to postpone a visit scheduled for earlier this year because of massive protests against the Korean government's decision to allow import of US beef. But Green says the demonstrations are directed more at the reforms brought in by President Lee Myung Bak.
Noting South Korea's phenomenal transition after the Korean War to political stability and a high-tech economy, Green says that even protests for Bush's visit "are a good-news story because it shows the vibrancy of Korean democracy."
Still, Bush will confront lingering South Korean resistance to US beef. Relations were irritated further when a US government geographic agency recently redesignated the small Dokdo islands claimed by both Japan and South Korea from "Korean" to "disputed."
Bush has since rescinded the change, but not before seeing resentment rekindled in Seoul.
Such squalls might be more easily dismissed if the US were on stronger footing to assert its leadership, says Michigan's Mr. Lieberthal. "We are less well-positioned to go forward in Asia than we should be," he says, pointing not just to America's perceived diplomatic weakness but to domestic conditions – on the economy, infrastructure, healthcare – that will require a domestic focus at a time of Asia's advance.
Lieberthal adds the Chinese leadership is actually more comfortable with an America that is less unchallenged superpower and more the world's No. 1 power among advancing countries it can no longer disregard. He points, for example, to China's appreciation of how the Bush administration opened the way to China's leadership role in six-party talks with North Korea over its nuclear program.
An Asia advancing economically and politically offers a range of many opportunities to the US, but only if the US maintains the leadership, openness, and innovative spirit that attracts Asian interest, Lieberthal says. Mindful of the Olympics opening in China this week, he adds, "We can derive all kinds of benefits – but only if we are on the top of our game."