Finding Bush’s Legacy in Asia

George W. Bush is making his last swings through Asia as US president. He attended the G-8 Summit meeting in Japan earlier this month and in August he plans to attend the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games. Unless he attends the annual APEC meeting in November, that’s probably about it for him.

It is difficult to believe that President Bush would win any popularity polls in Asia, let alone anywhere else, or come anywhere close to being as admired as some of his predecessors, including his father, who once served as ambassador to China. But, if pressed, many in the region would probably give the president good marks for his overall stewardship of America’s Asian policy. Who would have thought that the president, who as a candidate in 2000 famously could not name the president of Pakistan, will probably find the most enduring legacies in Asia for his eight otherwise benighted years in the White House?

Probably his most important accomplishment must be the country’s rapprochement with India, symbolized by the agreement on sharing nuclear power technology that was negotiated and announced in 2006. It was an agreement negotiated under a fait accompli. India had exploded nuclear weapons in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and it was up to the world to make the best of it. Under the proposed agreement with the US, New Delhi agreed to place the commercial side of its nuclear program under international safeguards, even though it has never ratified the nonproliferation treaty. In return, Washington agreed to lift the bans on exports of nuclear technology that have been in place since India exploded its first nuclear device in 1974.

In making the deal, the Bush administration displayed the audacity and strategic good sense in overturning conventional wisdom that former president Richard Nixon showed when he opened relations with China in his famous visit to Beijing in 1972.

Bush never put his personal stamp on this change of policy in the way that the China opening has become emblematic of Nixon. Maybe he was wise, since the nuclear negotiations are not yet a done deal. It was hung up for months due to implacable opposition by the leftist parties that support Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government.

But last week the left bloc withdrew its support, and Singh told Bush at the G-8 meeting that he expects to maintain power through alliances with other parties apparently more amenable to the deal. It has also to be finally approved by Congress, which in the past has shown strong bipartisan support.

Bush’s early overtures in Asia were uncertain to say the least. His first meeting with an Asian leader (or any other foreign leader), former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, was a disaster of miscues and misunderstandings. His administration’s first mention of China was to name it a “strategic competitor” rather than a strategic partner. Following the September 11, 2001 attack on America Bush also irritated Asian leaders by his single-minded focus on terrorism at various regional meetings such as the APEC summit.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, too, has been criticized for skipping meetings of the ASEAN foreign ministers. Over time, however, President Bush and his representatives have learned to synchronize their own priorities better with those of their Asian allies and friends in subsequent meetings.

For that matter, Southeast Asia has been one of the unsung success stories in the “Global War on Terrorism”. Most of the success comes from the efforts of the Asian nations themselves, but Washington has judiciously supported these efforts in the major terrorism theaters of Indonesia and the Philippines.

The few millions that Washington has given Jakarta to help underwrite its elite anti-terrorism unit, called Detachment 88, which has successfully arrested or killed several high-level al-Qaeda allies, is certainly the best value for the dollar in the war. Indonesia’s success is suppressing Jemaah Islamiyah was recognized last month when Washington the lifted the official travel advisory that has warned Americans against traveling to Indonesia.

The Bush administration’s handling of relations with the two biggest Asian powers, China and Japan, might best be summed up as doing no harm. It is one arena here the Bush administration has basically continued and built on long-standing initiatives of previous administrations headed by both parties.

The collision of a U.S. Navy intelligence-gathering plane and a Chinese MiG was defused neatly without damaging overall relations. Early on Bush promised to “do whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan. But as Taipei dragged its feet for years over appropriating the money to buy more US armaments to defend itself, the administration soured on former president Chen Sui-bian and his pro-independence party.

Part of this, too, was a reluctance to do anything that might create a crisis in the Taiwan Strait at a time when US attention and power was almost totally focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan. It is often forgotten how much China has benefitted from this diversion of attention.

Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, China was moving into the neoconservative gunsights. A head of steam was building around the proposition that China’s growing prosperity and increasing expenditures on modern armaments was becoming a threat to the United States. The irony is that China really does possess weapons of mass destruction and has the capability to use them against the continental United States.

But these days few American pundits or opinion makers pay much attention to China except as an economic story or as a business rival. When the neocons do turn their attention, however briefly, away from their obsessions with Iraq and Iran, it is to splutter some complaints about Bush’s turnaround on North Korea.

That leads of course, to the one Asian arena that was, during the first Bush administration at least, defined mainly in ideological terms, where the incoming administration was determined to reverse the policy of its predecessor. The landmark achievement of the former Clinton administration was the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

The neocons surrounding President Bush were determined to undo the accord, and in 2002 used North Korea’s suspected dabbling in uranium enrichment to end oil shipments, which in turn prompted Pyongyang to kick out international inspectors and restart the plutonium factory at Yongbyon.

For years the six party talks were mainly an excuse to do nothing, waiting for that blessed day when the regime of Kim Jong-il would collapse under its own weight. Meanwhile, Kim, far from collapsing, was slowly accumulating enough plutonium to build at least a half a dozen atomic bombs, one of which he exploded – or tried to explode - in October 2006.

Progress came only when Bush switched course and permitted his representative at the six-party talks to talk directly with his North Korean counterpart within the context of the multi-lateral negotiations. The upshot was the dismantling of plutonium facilities at Yongbyon and the turning over of data on the nuclear program.

Bush responded by dropping North Korea from the list of terror-sponsoring nations, an action that has irritated Japan, which has its own beef with Pyongyang over abduction of Japanese nationals over the years, but which was a necessary quid-pro-quo for the larger objective of defusing North Korea’s nuclear program.

Beyond the nuclear issue, relations with South Korea were strained during most of the Bush years because the politics of the two countries were out of sync. South Korea had elected two left-of-center presidents, while the U.S. had turned more conservative. The irony is that as the Korean electorate turned conservative in choosing Lee Myung-bak, who campaigned in part on improving the alliance, the American electorate seems poised to choose a left-of-center president..

A member of the US National Security Council accompanying President Bush to Japan in early July went to far as to say that the eight years of the Bush administration were a “golden era” in US-Japan relations. That may be an exaggeration, but in fact relations have been good, building upon initiative of previous administrations rather than trying to turn them around.

The relations were especially fruitful during the long (for Japan) administration of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. He made Japan a willing partner in America’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, stretching Japan’s pacifistic constitution to the limit to the delight of Americans and Japanese conservatives who have been pushing Japan to cooperate more closely with the U.S. on defense.

The US and Japan also concluded an important agreement in 2006 to lessen the American military footprint on Okinawa, by among other things, moving 8,000 marines and their dependents to Guam. There are doubts however, that the necessary infrastructure to support these troops, not to mention other aspects of the military buildup on Guam, by the 2010 deadline.

The government of Yasuo Fukuda is less slavishly cooperative with the US and is more focused on improving relations with China. Fukuda has also been hamstrung by the opposition party’s control of the upper house of the Diet. That led to a temporary suspension of the Japanese Maritime Defense Force’s refueling operations in the Indian Ocean.