TCS Daily

More of the Same?

By Rowan Callick - February 8, 2005 12:00 AM

Asia is anticipating a second term George Bush administration that is Asia-savvy, cautiously pro-China, eager to reinforce the positive instincts of new Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and utterly mesmerised by events in the Middle East.

When Bush pledged, in his inaugural address, to spread freedom "to the darkest corners of the world," few in Asia flinched.

In China, the lonely death in mid January of former party chief and premier Zhao Ziyang, discarded and held under house arrest after he talked with students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, underlined the country's continued authoritarianism. But when Bush said "the United States will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people," Beijing was not on his mind.

To the contrary, China -- which has broadly backed the war on terror, which has become a crucial trading partner with the US and investor in its securities, and which Washington has accorded the lead role in defusing North Korea's nuclear ambitions -- is viewed as a predictable, stable and largely friendly power.

East Asia has otherwise become -- Burma, Vietnam and Laos apart -- a region of largely liberal democracies. But it is apparent from Washington's signals to Seoul and Taipei, where left-inclined governments were elected last year, that democracy does not necessarily deliver what the Bush administration desires.

Beijing and Washington were united, for instance, in effectively urging Taiwanese voters to back the "pan blue" opponents of President Chen Shui-bian at the parliamentary election there last month -- which they did.

But that is unlikely to mean, in Asia overall, a more interventionist approach. During the first Bush term, State department professionals were largely left to run Asia policy the traditional diplomatic way, with the political activists utterly focused on the Middle East. This second term is likely to see more of the same.

New Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in her Senate confirmation hearings: "In Asia, we have moved beyond the false assumption that it is impossible to have good relations with all of Asia's powers.

"Our Asian alliances have never been stronger, and we will use that strength to help secure the peace and prosperity of the region." She described Japan, South Korea and Australia as "key partners in our efforts to deter common threats and spur economic growth."

She praised the peaceful elections last year in Indonesia and Malaysia, models of Muslim democracy, and described the relationship she would seek with China as "candid, cooperative and constructive."

Rice, a Russia specialist, has limited experience of East Asia, where her predecessor Colin Powell was widely respected. Powell's deputy Richard Armitage and Asia-Pacific assistant secretary Jim Kelly, both highly experienced Asia hands, have also gone.

Robert Zoellick, Rice's deputy, is well enough known in the region, not least in Australia, for his trade work, but is better known politically for his involvement in German reunification. The replacement of Kelly by Chris Hill, the ambassador to South Korea albeit for only five months, underlines the priority given to resolving the Korean stand-off, but Hill's career was previously largely focused on Eastern Europe.

James Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution -- no loyal ally of this White House -- views this as "a highly experienced team who are seen as mainstream internationalists." They are likely to place "increased emphasis on the economic dimension," he adds. This will prove important, as the blame-game between the US and Asian countries grows, over the US deficits and relative currency strengths.

Morgan Stanley analyst Stephen Roach says in his 2005 forecast that "Asia is unwittingly perpetuating the excesses of the American consumer," and that it would be in Asia's and the world's best interests for the region "to move to a more balanced growth model" than the current stress on exports and investment. It will require astute and focused leadership to help steer such a move, despite the growing consensus about its inevitability.

There was constant commentary during the first Bush term about the rows within the administration between agencies. Steinberg points out that having the former national security head and the former trade representative as the new leaders of the State department is likely to ensure that State gains "a stronger hearing in interagency disputes."

The appointment of Victor Cha, a widely respected academic and Korea expert, as new Asia director of the National Security Council chaired by the President, reinforces the sense of Asia competence in the renewed administration.

Rice's view that playing a leading role in the reconstruction efforts following the tsunami offers a "wonderful opportunity" for the US to build goodwill in the region was right, if infelicitously expressed. A warm relationship with Indonesia's President Yudhoyono, who received military training in Georgia and Kansas and an MA from Webster University, would appear a strong prospect, providing a valuable boost for the war against terror.

Japan may prove an interesting challenge, as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi leads it down the track towards national "normalcy," code for an increased military role, which Washington has urged, while Tokyo at the same time constantly seeks reassurance from the US that it rather than China retains America's prime Asian friendship.

And the transfer of Tom Schieffer as US ambassador from Canberra to Tokyo serves as a reminder that Washington, in its dealings with Asia, especially while it remains distracted by the Middle East, will continue to view Australia as a crucial partner in this region that drives global growth.

Rowan Callick is Asia Pacific Editor for The Australian Financial Review.



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