Bush seeks Asian allies in new war

Bush's trip to Japan, Korea, and China underpins his goal of strengthening US ties.

President Bush's first trip abroad in the next phase of the "war on terror" has been billed as a low-key, working visit, a time to combine plain talk and praise for the leaders of Japan, South Korea, and China.

But at a time when the Bush team is emphasizing the war on terror above all else, US alliances in Asia are of paramount importance. Sept. 11 has only bolstered the Bush team's goals of strengthening US security installations in East Asia and the Pacific Rim.

The next phase of the war on terror further increases the likelihood that Washington will turn to Japan. Southeast Asia - reportedly home to various Al Qaeda cells - is a part of the world where Japan still wields significant power.

Similarly, Japan's maintenance of business and diplomatic ties to Iran can afford Tokyo a role as a conduit to Tehran, potentially opening up a dialogue with a country White House officials say currently "leaves them confused." But Japan's influence in both regions has been built on its position as a financial powerhouse, a position some say will gradually slip away if Japan does not reform its debt-saddled economy.

Yet Bush faces some fancy footwork in the three Asian nations he chose to visit. Beyond the common thread of antiterror, the White House faces strains among the very different nations on his itinerary: Rising China and fiscally beleaguered Japan are ratcheting up a quiet but furious competition for Asian preeminence. And the White House itself has raised the stakes here by making the missile-building regime of North Korea a charter member of the "axis of evil," sending a shock to South Korea.

So while Bush is praising China, Japan, and South Korea, and wants help from each in the next phase of the war, some analysts say the best the White House can do in Asia is work diligently to heal divisions and build confidence.

"President Bush's ... Asia sojourn is a 'patch and caulk' operation - no major new initiatives, but rather an effort to repair cracks and fill gaps in the plaster of strained relationships," says Richard Baum, an Asia specialist at UCLA. "This won't be easy, because the gaps and strains are serious."

Bush will address the Japanese parliament today, walk up to the barbed wire that separates South Korea from North Korea tomorrow, and take questions from students at China's prestigious Qinghua University on Friday.

In South Korea, Bush must resolve his brazen "axis of evil" concept of the North, with the "sunshine policy" of President Kim Dae Jung, which two years ago brought the sides together for the first time in 50 years.

In China, the president will seek to gain Beijing's agreement on antiterror measures, such as an export list for sensitive products that could be used for high-tech weaponry. At the same time, he must express concern at the regime's treatment of religious groups and political prisoners.

In Japan, Bush has embraced embattled Prime Minister Koizumi - even while advocating reform of Japan's deficit spending, bad bank loans, and bloated state industry.

Bush said he discussed the country's three most pressing needs: regulatory reform, deflation, and nonperforming loans. (Bush accidentally referred to devaluation instead, causing the yen to drop.)

But the president avoided the traditional dynamic of applying a dose of gaiatsu - or foreign pressure - for domestic consumption as a way to prod Japan to action.

Some observers say Bush's outlook does not represent a softening on the need for Japanese reform, but a shift in the way the US approaches it. "The US has a long reputation, left over from the 1980s, of trying to lecture to Japan. And for that reason, I think that the administration felt that if they were to do this, they had to speak softly," says Andrew Horvath, director of the Asia Foundation's Japan office.

Bush will give two speeches in South Korea. One will dramatically take place right at the demilitarized zone, 30 miles from downtown Seoul, where 37,000 US troops have provided a cold-war style "tripwire" that the North Korean Army has not tested in 50 years. The other will be a morale builder for the troops themselves.

South Korean officials close to President Kim - who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for his "sunshine policy" of opening with the North - hope Bush will moderate his language. They want a speech similar to President Reagan's "tear down that wall" Berlin speech in the mid-1980s, where Bush would call for an end to the wall dividing north and south. They hope he will ask for North Korean troops and weapons to be pulled away from the border, and for the doors of the repressive communist regime to open up.

What Kim reportedly does not want is an uncompromising, hawkish speech that bluntly targets the behavior of North Korea and further enrages its reclusive leader.

Yet whatever Bush says, the overall White House strategy seems to be to apply the kind of pressure that will itself reveal the dynamics inside the opaque northern regime, sources say. The administration wishes to know whether Kim Jong Il - or his generals - hold the upper decisionmaking hand in the North. They want to force, or "corner," the North's Kim.

Such an approach is risky, some analysts worry. "North Korea continues to decline, but retains a violent government and weapons of mass destruction," says a former Clinton administration official. "No country in the region - South Korea, Japan, China, or Russia - wants to face the catastrophic financial, refugee, and other problems that a North Korean collapse would bring."

At the same time, however, a Society of Freethinkers in South Korea, made up of some 300 influential citizens, issued a statement this week saying that "a great many Korean people now tend to alienate themselves from the so-called Sunshine Policy," and called the policy "appeasement."

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