Bush's second term: focus more on Asia
By Ralph A. Cossa
Global Beat Syndicate
SINGAPORE--In his second term, George W. Bush and his team need to pay more attention to Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular, according to regional experts. And just as Asians need to recognize the importance Bush places on the war on terrorism, the Bush team needs to understand that a seemingly one-dimensional approach toward Southeast Asia--frequently characterized in this part of the world as Washington's continued "hectoring" on terrorism issues--detracts from achieving key U.S. objectives shared by the majority of East Asian states. These include the promotion of open markets, democracy and the rule of law, public health concerns such as the spread of HIV/AIDS, SARS, bird flu, etc., and the need to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists.
These are among the key findings of security specialists who participated in a recent Asia Foundation "America's Role in Asia" project. The findings of four task forces (from the United States and from Southeast, Northeast, and South Asia) merit careful consideration by Washington and by those in the region concerned about the level of regional cooperation with the new Bush administration.
Each of the four task forces consider Sino-U.S. relations as a key factor in shaping the future geopolitical environment. Here, they say, Washington needs to better articulate its long-term vision regarding China, and Beijing needs to articulate its long-term vision for its own role in Asia. None of these experts takes China's "peaceful rise" for granted, and most still favor a continued U.S. military presence in Asia as a "hedge" against a more assertive China in the future. As one conference participant noted, "We have no doubt China's rise will be peaceful; it's what China will do once it has risen that is the real concern."
While Washington's actions can affect the outcome (positively or negatively), ultimately it is up to Beijing to address the region's concerns about its future intentions. It is not a "zero-sum game," and neither Washington nor Beijing should approach its relations with that in mind. That said, Asian participants are worried that Washington is "losing the competition for influence in Southeast Asia," and that China is winning.
Some of the participants paid a lot of attention to the most probable Sino-U.S. flash point--Taiwan--while Southeast Asians barely made passing reference to this problem, even though U.S. mismanagement of its own relations with Taipei could have disastrous consequences for the entire region. Isolating Taiwan is not the answer. Finding creative ways to integrate Taiwan into the economic, political and security dialogue makes more sense, but this requires a less confrontational approach by Taipei and more flexibility than Beijing has so far demonstrated.
U.S. and Southeast Asian experts agree on the need for closer cooperation between Washington and the ten-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a whole, rather than the current, largely bilateral U.S. approach, where we deal with individual (especially like-minded) ASEAN members one-on-one. China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand all now participate in annual summit meetings with ASEAN--the United States does not.
One key stumbling point is Myanmar (or Burma, we cannot even agree on its name). Virtually all the conference participants expressed hope that Washington will find more effective ways to promote political reconciliation and openness in Rangoon, but the also called on the military rulers there to honor their Roadmap to Democracy. Every Asia expert also urged Mr. Bush to find ways to reach out to Southeast Asia's 250 million Muslims, and they stressed in particular the need to effectively, but diplomatically (read "unobtrusively") support Indonesia's democratization.
The message from Southeast Asia is clear: "We want to have good relations with the United States, based on a mutual recognition of the region's growing economic and political importance, not just as a 'second front' in the war on terrorism." U.S. and East Asian specialists alike are hoping that in its second term, the Bush White House will do a better job of articulating a comprehensive strategy and vision for Asia.