Heads of state travel either to get a respite from domestic problems or to get photo opportunities that make them look like leaders. By those standards, U.S. President George W. Bush must be frustrated by his recently concluded eight-day Asia tour. He neither escaped increasingly contentious and bitter Washington politics, nor did he have opportunities to demonstrate the vigorous leadership upon which he prides himself. Coming on the heels of his trip to South America, Mr. Bush must be wondering how he can recapture the dynamism that animated his first term in office.
The trip began on a high note in Kyoto, where Mr. Bush applauded the strong ties that have developed between the United States and Japan during his presidency. In his public remarks, the president held Japan up as proof of what freedom and democracy offer a country. He celebrated the bilateral relationship as a pillar of U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region and a powerful instrument to create a better world.
That fine rhetoric is no substitute for concrete action, however, and two items topped the president’s wish list: a resumption of U.S. beef imports and assurances from the Tokyo government that it would implement the agreement on the redeployment of U.S. forces that was reached a month ago. On both counts, Mr. Bush got less than firm commitments: Given the history of both issues, Mr. Koizumi’s promise that there would be progress is unlikely to allay U.S. concerns.
After Kyoto, Mr. Bush went to South Korea to meet with President Roh Moo Hyun and to attend the leaders summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. The two men also saluted their alliance, and pledged to work together to deal with North Korea. Yet shortly after their meeting, the South Korean Cabinet backed a proposal to withdraw 300 of the 3,200 South Korean troops in Iraq.
Mr. Bush will be pleased at the APEC meeting’s declaration of support for a successful World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Hong Kong next month, as well as steps to prepare for and prevent an avian flu pandemic. Then again, every multilateral economic institution will endorse successful trade talks. The devil has always been in the details and they continue to be lacking.
China may well have been the most frustrating of all the president’s stops. Mr. Bush was speaking to China (among others) when he saluted freedom in Kyoto, but the Chinese leadership has made it plain that it will continue to liberalize its political system at a pace at which Beijing is comfortable and will not be rushed. Mr. Bush punctuated his call for religious freedom by attending church services in Beijing, but the Chinese sent their own message. In the past, China has released democracy activists and high-profile human-rights activists before a U.S. presidential visit. This time, however, there was no release, and shortly before his visit, China sentenced an underground Christian pastor to three years in prison for illegally printing Bibles, and appears to be cracking down more widely on human-rights activists.
Chinese President Hu Jintao was equally unyielding on economic issues. He promised to “gradually achieve balanced trade” between the two countries and to move toward more flexibility in Chinese exchange rates. Mr. Hu also said that his government would step up the fight against piracy of intellectual property. But once again, Mr. Bush heard no details on how any of those objectives would be achieved.
Mr. Bush probably received his warmest reception in Mongolia, his last stop. Mr. Bush is the first U.S. president to visit the country, which is uncomfortably wedged between China and Russia. The president made the historic four-hour visit to salute Mongolia’s support for the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan — it is the third largest contributor to Operation Iraqi Freedom on a per capita basis — and its efforts to build democracy after 70 years of communism. There, Mr. Bush’s call for freedom was well received.
Prior to his trip, administration officials said there would be no breakthroughs during his visits. They argued that low-key diplomacy reflects a new maturity in U.S. relations with countries in the region: Mr. Bush was traveling to meet key partners, and the opportunity to hold frank discussions was enough to warrant the trip and to consider it a success.
Yet every president wants concrete and visible achievements to mark his travels. On that score, this trip has little to show. And going home will offer no relief. The president will now be forced to join the increasingly vicious U.S. domestic debate over Iraq. There is no respite for Mr. Bush these days.
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