How is President George W. Bush doing in his relations with Asia? Over the past year and a half, things have been relatively quiet from Washington's point of view, but the drift of events is not an encouraging one.
The Pacific Rim was the scene of one of the first significant foreign policy clashes of Bush's administration when a U.S. Navy EP-3 electronic surveillance plane had to make a forced landing on the Chinese island of Hainan in the spring of 2001 after it collided with a Chinese fighter jet buzzing it. The 24-member U.S. crew of the plane was released after 11 days. The plane -- carrying America's most super-secret electronic surveillance secrets -- was eventually returned to the United States.
However, the mega-terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and mauled the Pentagon in Washington took the steam out of any taste for confrontation with China from the administration's hawks.
So far, they have had their hands full chasing and failing to destroy the core cadres of the al Qaida terrorist organization in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. And now they are focused on preparing to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Meanwhile, an ominous list of disputes and potential crises with major nations on the world's most populous continent continue to simmer on the smoldering fires of history, and Bush and his team are not addressing them.
Relations with China have recovered somewhat from the days of the spy plane incident. A U.S. Navy warship, the USS Paul F. Foster, is visiting the mainland China port of Qingdao this week.
But Bush has made no serious effort to forge a new understanding that would endure well into the 21st century, especially not on the flashpoint issue of Taiwan.
At the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress earlier this month, Vice President Hu Jintao succeeded President Jiang Zemin as general secretary of the ruling Communist Party and effective ruler of the world's most populous nation.
Hu has been in the forefront of nationalist, anti-American agitation in recent years and is also a driving force behind the enormous, relentless build up of missiles and other conventional weapons to try and ensure China's air and sea supremacy over the United States in the event of any war over Taiwan.
And on June 15, 2001, the very same day President Bush gave a well-received speech in Warsaw pledging U.S. support for the expansion of NATO in Central and Eastern Europe, President Jiang and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with far less global fanfare, created with the leaders of four Central Asia nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- an alliance deliberately modeled on the old Warsaw Pact. Its express aim was to preserve "multi-polarity" in the world. That is the Beijing and Moscow diplomatic code term for opposing the "uni-polar" global supremacy of the United States.
In the U.S. outrage after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Putin took care to keep his options open to Washington and cooperated with the United States in toppling the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime that had protected and fostered al Qaida in Afghanistan.
But he made no move to pull out of the Shanghai Pact, either. And as U.S. forces threaten to get bogged down in nation-building in Afghanistan, and in a highly uncertain and increasing commitment in the Middle East, the sustainability of the U.S. influence in Central Asia becomes an increasingly open question.
Relations with Japan have remained basically good on Bush's watch. But a generational changing of the guard is taking place in democratic Tokyo as well as authoritarian Beijing and the rising generation of Japanese leaders looks unlikely to be as deferential to Washington as their staid old predecessors of the Keizo Obuchi-Yoshiro Mori era were.
The most ominous cloud on the Tokyo-Washington horizon at the moment is Japan's ever-deepening systemic banking crisis and the failure of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to come to grips with it.
For the past 20 years, enormous U.S. budget deficits and the strength of the dollar have failed to produce disastrous economic consequences in significant part because of the willingness and ability of Japan's largest banks and institutions to invest in U.S. Treasury bonds and support the dollar. Any full-scale fiscal meltdown in Tokyo could therefore have catastrophic consequences for the United States, much as the 1929 Wall Street crash set off disastrous reverberations in Europe over the following two years.
In contrast to Japan, South Korea under the steady, experienced hand of President Kim Dae-jung has made a robust economic recovery from previous doldrums. But the South Koreans were privately appalled by Bush's confrontationist rhetoric with reclusive North Korea on his visit there. The president also included North Korea along with Iran and Iraq as part of an "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address.
Now their fears that Bush might provoke the isolated, paranoid rulers in Pyongyang into unpredictable and potentially dangerous moves appear to have been confirmed. This fall, North Korea startled the world by admitting it was driving ahead with a nuclear program that may have already produced workable nuclear weapons.
So far, the U.S. response has been, at best cautious, and at worst weak and indecisive. It is a pattern that has also characterized most administration policies towards South and Southeast Asia as well.
(Next: The record on South and Southeast Asia)
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