HONOLULU — U.S. President George W. Bush, during his recent visit to Asia, seized the opportunity to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the promotion of democracy, free and fair trade, and political and especially religious freedom. But other opportunities were missed in terms of better defining America’s current and future role in Asia.
Bush’s tour, which included stops in Japan, South Korea, China and Mongolia, began with a major Asia policy address in Kyoto, where he stressed that “freedom is the bedrock of America’s friendship with Japan — and it is the bedrock of our engagement with Asia.” Underscoring the promotion of democracy theme that played so prominently in his second inauguration address, he identified freedom as “the basis of our growing ties to other nations in the region and . . . the destiny of every man, woman, and child from New Zealand to the Korean Peninsula.”
Citing the examples of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, he noted that “freedom is an outgrowth of economic prosperity,” and that the “best opportunity to spread the freedom that comes from economic prosperity is through free and fair trade.” He cited Myanmar and North Korea as examples of states “whose leaders have refused to take even the first steps to freedom.” Beijing got off easier; Bush cited China as among those states that “have taken some steps toward freedom — but they have not yet completed the journey.”
In noting that Taiwan had “moved from repression to democracy as it liberalized its economy,” he reinforced the theme that Taipei’s transition to democracy could provide a useful model for Beijing: “By embracing freedom at all levels,” Bush noted, Taiwan had “created a free and democratic Chinese society.”
While Beijing took some offense at Bush’s report card and his citing of Taiwan as an example, there was much in the speech and in his subsequent visit to Beijing that should have been reassuring to China. In Kyoto, and again in Beijing, Bush praised current and past Chinese leaders for their initial steps down the road toward greater economic and political reform and expressed appreciation for China’s “important role” in pursuing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. He reaffirmed that America’s “one-China policy remains unchanged” and that “there should be no unilateral attempts to change the status quo by either side.”
In a pre-trip interview with Phoenix TV, he went further, stating that “we do not support independence” and that he was “optimistic there will be a peaceful resolution because I have seen cross-strait discussions starting to take place.”
Unfortunately, this dialogue has primarily been between Beijing and the leaders of Taiwan’s opposition parties. Bush missed the opportunity to stress the need for direct dialogue between Beijing and the leadership in Taiwan, without whom there can be no peaceful resolution.
Bush patted himself on the back for attending religious services in Beijing, calling it an “affirmation of my strong belief that people should be able to worship freely.” This was not unprecedented, of course. His two most recent predecessors, and his secretary of state, had done the same. A more pointed gesture would have been to worship privately in his room, rather than at a state-sponsored church, in silent tribute to the millions of Chinese who risk persecution by worshipping at underground churches rather than attended services that are closely controlled and monitored by government authorities.
While freedom was clearly identified as the bedrock of America’s policies in Asia, little was said of the role that America’s alliances and military force presence in Asia play in nurturing and protecting this freedom. In fact, in what had to have been a first in the past 60 years of presidential addresses on Asia, during the president’s “major policy address” in Kyoto, the word “alliance” was never uttered. The president missed the opportunity to explain why America’s bilateral alliance structure in Northeast Asia still makes sense today and remains essential to future stability.
One major criticism of the Bush administration has been its “mixed signals” toward Beijing — the accusation that there were two China policies, one pursued by the Department of State and the other by the Pentagon. In an attempt to overcome this perception, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, in New York in September, gave what was described as the definitive description of the Bush administration’s second term approach toward China, calling on Beijing to be “a responsible stakeholder in the international system.”
Rather than reinforce or expand upon this concept, as many anticipated, Bush never even repeated the “responsible stakeholder” phrase, causing many in Asia to again question if Zoellick was merely speaking for the State Department — or perhaps just for himself, since his boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has likewise failed to use this terminology.
Bush’s Chinese hosts did seize the opportunity of his visit to demonstrate that they no longer felt it was necessary to make grand gestures or provide significant “deliverables.” Usually, in advance of a presidential visit, Beijing will release a few political prisoners from a U.S.-provided “wish list” as a goodwill gesture; this time Beijing unceremoniously added to the list instead. During his last visit, in February 2002, the Chinese government allowed live press coverage of Bush’s speech to university students.
This time his primary Chinese photo op was a bike ride with Chinese Olympic hopefuls, reflecting a newly found confidence in Beijing when it comes to handling Sino-U.S. relations, which in turn makes a consistent U.S. policy toward Beijing all the more essential.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity took place during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting in Pusan, which brought together, among others, the leaders of China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the U.S. The APEC chairman’s statement did not even mention North Korea in passing; the closest it came was a general statement endorsing the need to “eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.”
The five heads of state should jointly meet and definitively state their common position that North Korea must live up to its promises under the September 2005 Six-Party Joint Declaration and that it needed to return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and full International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards before any serious discussion could be held on future peaceful energy programs. This would have sent a powerful message to Pyongyang to stop stalling and to enter into serious negotiations to quickly and verifiably abandon all its nuclear-weapons programs.