Bush tours a more secure Asia

His trip, which ends at the Olympics, is intended to showcase achievements in the region.

SOURCE: The White House/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

When George W. Bush attends the opening ceremonies of the Olympics Friday, he'll make history as the first US president to attend the Olympic Games outside the United States.

But the president's attendance in Beijing will also be the culmination of a week-long trip to South Korea, Thailand, and China that the White House envisions as the showcasing of a successfully managed Asia policy that Mr. Bush will hand off to the next president. Though perhaps less flashy than the Olympics' parade of nations, the items on Bush's agenda – North Korea's nuclear program, US-South Korea relations, democracy's advance in East Asia, and China's rise as a world power – are all issues the White House sees as historic in their own right.

Relations with Thailand, South Korea, Japan, and China "have never been stronger" because of "a lot of hard work" by his administration, Bush told journalists from the countries he will visit in interviews last week.

After coming into office with a confrontational stance toward a rising China and open belligerence toward North Korea, the Bush administration has developed an Asia policy that has lowered the temperature of some of the world's toughest security threats, experts in the region say. They point to the Korean Peninsula, the China-Taiwan issue, and even the India-Pakistan conflict.

But they also say that prickly issues remain – some of which Bush will confront on his trip. Some experts contend that a looming issue of America's gradual eclipse by a roaring Asia has been exacerbated by America's poor domestic performance over the Bush years.

"On a superficial level, the Bush administration leaves the US on better terms in Asia than in other regions," says Kenneth Lieberthal, a China specialist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "But at a deeper level, there's been a hollowing out of our capabilities and a deteriorating of our strengths that will require full attention at home. That inward focus, he adds, "will reduce our attraction in such a dynamic region as Asia."

Bush will delve into America's broad relations with Asia in a speech he is set to deliver in Thailand on Thursday. But before that he will deal with the rough patch US-Korea relations have hit over trade issues and, most recently, over the US stance on islands claimed by both South Korea and Japan. In Thailand, he'll meet with political refugees from Burma (Myanmar), while first lady Laura Bush will travel to refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border.

In China, Bush will pursue with President Hu Jintao the human rights and religious freedom themes that he took up with Chinese dissidents prior to his departure from Washington. Last week, China reacted sharply to Bush's meeting with the five dissidents and his assurance to them that he would "carry the message of freedom" to Beijing.

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.

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."

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