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The author bases this informative survey on a presentation he made in April to a university study group on Asia. As the reader will note, he finds the record mixed, with successes in dealing with China and Japan, and a lack of success pretty much elsewhere in the region. — Ed.

George Bush's Unfinished Asian Agenda

by Robert M. Hathaway

The record of the Bush administration in East Asia over the past four years is a mixed one, but with significant accomplishments. Nonetheless, nagging problems persist that, if not adequately addressed, could create considerable difficulties for the president during his second term. Finally, George Bush’s first term record in East Asia contains one very substantial failure.

First, the accomplishments: By any reckoning, the revitalization of the U.S.-Japanese alliance is a major achievement that is likely to pay dividends long after Bush vacates the White House. Prime Minister Koizumi has been one of Bush’s strongest backers on the war in Iraq, and has dispatched Japanese troops to Iraq (albeit, in a noncombatant, reconstruction role), the first such deployment into a combat zone since World War II. The new-found warmth in U.S.-Japanese relations today is all the more notable in comparison with Washington’s strained ties with many of its traditional European allies

To the surprise of many “China experts,” Bush has also managed the difficult U.S.-China relationship with considerable success. Candidate Bush campaigned on a platform ridiculing the Clinton administration for regarding China as a “strategic partner” and declared that a Bush administration would shed this naiveté and recognize China for what it was — a “strategic competitor.” One has only to compare Bush’s public statement in early 2001 that the United States would do “whatever it takes” to ensure Taiwan’s security with his unusually pointed warnings to Taipei more recently about not upsetting the status quo to see how far Bush — and the U.S.-China relationship – has traveled over the past four years.

Turning to the Korean peninsula, here the record is rather less impressive.

Washington’s partnership with Seoul needs serious attention during Bush’s second term. Polls show that many South Koreans view the United States as a greater threat to peace than North Korea. President Roh has even taken to talking about the South playing the role of “balancer” in the region.

North Korea represents the one substantial Asian failure in the administration’s record over the past four years. North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities today are greater than when Bush entered office. Even more worrisome is the fact that there is no mechanism in place to prevent Pyongyang from the further production of the fissile material necessary for nuclear weapons. And increased production only enhances the likelihood that Pyongyang will transfer dangerous materials or technology to unsavory buyers.

Bush was correct in recognizing that the North Korean challenge was a multilateral problem. Even so, he has little to show in the way of results. In truth, the administration has yet to decide upon a North Korea policy. It has, in effect, outsourced its North Korea policy to China, even though Beijing’s North Korea agenda is significantly different than Washington’s. Nor has the vitriolic rhetoric employed by the U.S. president and other senior officials been helpful either in persuading Pyongyang to negotiate seriously or in reassuring Washington’s ally in Seoul.

Shifting to Southeast Asia, one must of necessity start with the war on terrorism, since U.S. policy in the region over the past four years has been driven by that conflict. Of note is the fact that there have been relatively few acts of terror against American interests in the region. The vast majority of the region’s Muslims have rejected Islamic radicalism. Most of the governments in the region have supported — with varying degrees of enthusiasm — America’s anti-terrorism efforts.

Nonetheless, most Southeast Asians are not yet convinced this is their fight. More generally, U.S. policy in Southeast Asia has been essentially one-dimensional — emphasizing the counter-terrorism agenda almost to the exclusion of anything else. This preoccupation with terrorism has promoted an impression among the people of Southeast Asia that the United States does not really care about them or their interests, and has given China and India an opportunity to gain influence in the region at America’s expense.

In Southeast Asia, as in other parts of the world, America’s overall standing has eroded over the past four years. Southeast Asians question both the wisdom of U.S. policies, and the benign nature of U.S. intentions. The war in Iraq, whatever its virtues, has created substantial problems for the U.S. image in Southeast Asia. More happily, the administration’s response to last December’s tsunami has helped to win friends for the United States in the region. After a slow start in recognizing the terrible dimensions of the tragedy, the administration has done an impressive job in assisting the people of Indonesia and elsewhere throughout the region to rebuild their shattered lives.

Turning to the unfinished tasks facing George Bush in his second term, North Korea is, by any reckoning, the most pressing issue on the president’s Asia agenda. There are
increasing signs that the 6-party talks are at a dead end, and that hopes for negotiating North Korea’s nuclear arsenal away are fruitless. Even were the North to return to the table, it is not at all clear that either Pyongyang or Washington is prepared for the genuine give-and-take that true negotiations entail.

One of the notable surprises of the past four years has been the Bush administration’s lack of urgency in dealing with the North Korea nuclear problem. Time would not appear to be on our side. Each passing week gives Pyongyang more time to expand its nuclear arsenal. There are increasing indications that the North may test a bomb, or engage in some other provocative act that would heat up tensions in the region. And worst of all, if the current impasse continues, the North will be sorely tempted to sell fissile material — or a complete nuclear weapon — to America’s enemies.

Recently, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has heightened the tone of urgency in her remarks. During her swing through Asia in March, she spoke of looking at “other options” should the North not return to 6-party negotiations. This is empty talk. None of the other options are attractive; none hold the promise of resolving the dispute peacefully. The options most frequently mentioned — taking the issue to the UN Security Council, or stepping up pressure on Pyongyang — are likely to be supported by neither China nor South Korea. Washington continues to dismiss Asian calls for greater U.S. flexibility in its own negotiating stance. Yet only by making a good faith effort to negotiate will the United States obtain the support of its friends in the region for a tougher approach should, as appears likely, negotiations fail.

Finally, no one — least of all those in South Korea who are so vocal on this matter — knows where the insistence on exclusively peaceful means to resolve this conflict slides
into an implicit acquiescence in a North Korean nuclear weapons arsenal. Similarly, repeated declarations by the Bush administration that it “will not accept” a North Korean nuclear arsenal grow more and more hollow in the face of overwhelming evidence that Pyongyang not only possesses such an arsenal, but is systematically enlarging its nuclear stockpile.

Sino-American relations will also require the president’s continual attention in the months ahead. Claims that relations between Washington and Beijing are the best they have ever been are misleading. There is growing impatience in Washington with China. Conservatives are upset because Beijing has not delivered on North Korea. Trade and financial issues roil the relationship, and the Senate is slated to vote later this summer on a measure enjoying widespread support that would impose punitive duties on all Chinese exports to the United States. Beijing’s adoption in March of the anti-secession law has renewed old concerns about China’s intentions toward Taiwan. In truth, this is a highly fragile relationship whose fundamental problems have not been tackled, let alone resolved.

Finally, if the United States is to overcome its negative image in Southeast Asia, the Bush administration must broaden the American agenda with Islamic Asia, to address the concerns of the region’s mainstream Muslims. Washington must also pay far more attention to the tone and style of its policies; it must rely less on the assertion of American military power and more on genuine consultation, collaboration, and coalition-building. The administration must also demonstrate greater sensitivity to the domestic constraints on the governments of the region, even if this means being content with less visible help on such issues as Iraq or maritime security than Washington would prefer.

One hears a great deal these days about the need for more effective public diplomacy. But not even the most sophisticated PR effort will help if others find U.S. policies selfish, immoral, or just plain wrong-headed. U.S. policy in the Middle East is a particular sore spot for Asia’s Muslim population. Unless Washington is able to convince Muslims that its Mideast policy is not inimical to Palestinian aspirations, the United States is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of Southeast Asia’s 250 million Muslims.

Successful public diplomacy is a long-term project. But Bush can address another irritant in relations with Asia’s Muslim population overnight: the country’s restrictive and seemingly arbitrary visa and immigration policies. America’s immigration policy is broken. Muslims are convinced that U.S. immigration policy harbors a deeply held anti-Muslim prejudice. If remedial action is not taken quickly, the United States will have missed an opportunity to win lifelong friends among the next generation of Asian leaders.

Change is afoot in Asia. How George W. Bush responds to, and shapes, that change will go far to determine his legacy. More importantly — for both Americans and Asians — it will help determine whether the twenty-first century escapes or repeats the unhappy experiences of the twentieth.

Republished by permission from E-Notes, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, PA, USA (w, e-mail


Robert M. Hathaway is director of the Asia Program at the
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served for twelve years on the staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. House of Representatives.


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