Bush legacy leaves U.S., Asia room to build

by Thitinan Pongsudhirak

BANGKOK — In his last presidential visit to Asia, U.S. President George W. Bush laid out what he considered was his legacy for the region. But what he left out in his last major Asia policy speech, delivered earlier this month in Bangkok, was as revealing as what he underlined as his success.

Bush chose as his overarching paradigm the core American ideals of freedom, prosperity and security, portraying them as the cornerstones of his administration’s policy results in Asia. The good news for his successor is that the outgoing president’s approach toward Asia leaves much room for maneuver and much policy space in which to operate.

With a wide array of Asian countries to choose from to give his remarks prior to attending the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, many observers in Thailand, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and others questioned why the U.S. president had landed in Seoul and Bangkok, and not other Asian capitals. These two stopovers were symbolic and testimony to America’s long-standing priorities in Asia. South Korea and Thailand, two formal treaty allies of the United States, have been key pillars in Washington’s engagement with the region since World War II.

The Korean War was a watershed event. The unfinished business over Korean reunification and the ongoing denuclearization of North Korea remain thorny issues and represent the main focus of Bush’s dealings with East Asia. That Thailand was picked for the second leg of his overseas visit and venue for the policy recap of the Bush years was equally significant.

Thai-U.S. relations have just reached the milestone of 175 years, the oldest relationship in this region. Bangkok’s anticommunist support in the American camp during the Cold War never wavered. Thailand is not just a treaty partner but a major non-NATO ally. It has struggled through a coup period, and has returned to democratic rule. Bush acknowledged this point but wisely skipped the issue of the contested nature of Thai democracy, its prolonged crisis and stalemate. Bangkok has also just taken up the rotational chairmanship of ASEAN.

Thailand’s geography made sense for Bush’s second Asia policy focus: Burma. Both the president and his wife have evidently made many pitches on behalf of the Burmese people and their elusive democracy. Yet the president’s reference in Bangkok to Burma’s military regime and repression was surprisingly light. A full-blown verbal assault on the Burmese generals could have caused considerable discomfort for Thailand with its current ASEAN chairmanship.

As a next-door neighbor to Burma, Thailand risked tensions with Burma’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) if it gave Bush a springboard to grill the Burmese generals.

Instead, Bush and his wife used less official venues to make their points, including his lunch with leading Burmese dissidents and a high-profile visit to a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. The cause of Burma’s freedom, democracy and human rights was poignantly served, but whether Bush’s and his wife’s gestures will make any difference on the ground is doubtful. Under his watch, Washington’s sanctions regime on Burma’s military junta has been frustrated and overcome by the generals, and they may have been counterproductive and detrimental in their unintended effect of exacerbating the Burmese people’s hardships.

What Bush skipped in his speech were the roles of India, China and ASEAN in effectively allowing the SPDC to get away with its repression and sustained rule. Indeed, Bush’s successor will have ample opportunities to rebalance Washington’s Burma policy to combine selective engagement with increased leverage on the big players in Burma’s neighborhood.

What Bush highlighted as his accomplishments were alliance formation and reinforcement, the pursuit of values such as freedom and democracy, Asia-Pacific growth and prosperity, and concerted efforts to “confront challenges.” These constituted an updated version of the Bush Doctrine — minus the once-dominant neoconservative zeal, the primacy of security and the concept of preemption.

But there was a glaring Bush omission: The war on terror, particularly in Iraq and in Afghanistan to a lesser extent, has been a grand U.S. misadventure. It was misguided and, for all intents and purposes, has failed. It has sapped the energy and resources from what could have been represented the president’s successes in Asia.

China was the third country on which Bush focused. The president was measured in his assessment, citing Beijing’s role in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament and the maintenance of a status quo for Taiwan — neither a Chinese takeover of the island nation nor a Taiwanese declaration of independence. Beijing was naturally chastised for its lack of freedom and human and religious rights. The more critical comments on China were obviously best said in Bangkok before the president arrived in Beijing.

The thrust of Bush’s remarks spelled out a series of bilateral successes with Asian countries based on core American values and perceptions of security and prosperity. Bush’s emphasis on bilateralism over regionalism and multilateralism will be his principal legacy for future U.S. engagement in Asia. The new administration from next January will have to ponder whether a broader conceptualization of engaging Asia as a region by signing ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and joining the inchoate regional architecture such as the ASEAN Plus Three, East Asian Community-building, and the East Asia Summit is in America’s greater interest.

The events of 9/11 were Bush’s misfortune as they have subsequently directed and defined his foreign policy dealings with the world at large, and Asia in particular. The next president will have more latitude to refashion U.S. foreign policy in Asia with less baggage from the war on terror. He should see Asia as more than just North Korea in the northeast and Burma in the southeast.

In view of China’s rise and nuanced handling of Asia, it behooves Washington to engage the region as an integrated partner — not on a bilateral basis but as a major architect of Asian regionalism. This rebalancing constitutes what policymakers in most Asian capitals are expecting from Washington.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. © 2008 OpinionAsia (www.opinionasia.org)