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Council's Asia Expert Says Bush to Stress War on Terror at APEC Meeting in Bangkok

Interviewee: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 16, 2003

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Elizabeth C. Economy, the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says President Bush will press issues high on his political agenda such as the importance of continuing the war on terror when he meets with Asian leaders in Bangkok at the annual summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum on October 21-21.

Economy, expanding on topics she discussed in an op-ed piece in The International Herald Tribune, says Bush will try to ensure that countries of Southeast Asia remain committed to the war at a time when “public support for the United States is at an all-time low.”

She was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 16, 2003.

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What’s important about the APEC summit and President Bush’s brief stops in Tokyo, Manila, Singapore, Bali, and Canberra surrounding his visit to Bangkok?

The APEC meeting offers President Bush the opportunity to pursue a number of issues that are right at the top of his political agenda. First of all, he will try to emphasize the importance of continuing the war on terror throughout Southeast Asia, trying to ensure that nations in the region remain on board, particularly in critical places like Indonesia, where public support for the United States is at an all-time low.

At the same time he has a number of other security-related issues, such as North Korea and Iraq, that he will want to raise. Trade-related issues will also be at the top of his list, followed by human rights issues. I think that he was very disappointed by the fact that, last week when the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] gathered, the leaders were so quick to accept vague promises by Burma’s military leadership concerning both future democratic elections in Burma and [dissident leader] Aung San Suu Kyi’s current health status.

Will this in a way be a continuation of the World Trade Organization trade talks in Cancun last month that failed?

Bush may try to pick up the pieces from the trade negotiations that fell apart in Cancun. He is going to press APEC members to improve their efforts in ensuring fairness in terms of government procurement, foreign investment, transparency, and anti-trust regulation. He also will pressure China and Japan on currency issues. He wants China to revalue its currency and Japan to stop intervening in the market. At the same time, many APEC members are very likely to come back at the United States and complain that the United States provides enormous agricultural subsidies and sets tariffs on steel and textiles. Of course, our bidding process for reconstruction contracts in Iraq might well provoke claims that the United States needs to improve its own government procurement practices.

How will the domestic politics of these countries come into play during the APEC meeting?

I think it is important to remember that there are a number of Asian leaders who are up for election, just as President Bush is, in 2004. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia all will hold elections next year. The primary concern of these leaders over the next year is going to be on the domestic front. This is a time of domestic difficulty— both in terms of the political situation and the state of the region’s economies— in a number of these countries. President Bush has to be sensitive to the fact that even if he pushes very hard, they may not be able to respond in a way that he would like.

What about South Korea? How are relations with the United States?

Relations between the United States and South Korea are at a low point. There is substantial opposition to the United States among South Koreans and little enthusiasm for sending South Korean troops to Iraq. South Korea also disagrees with the United States over how to approach North Korea, and now the United States has introduced the extremely sensitive issue of repositioning the 37,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea. There seems little that is moving in the right direction in terms of U.S.-South Korea relations at this moment.

Anything to say about some of these side trips?

APEC itself will convene in Bangkok, but President Bush will also be making some very short side trips to other countries. The question, particularly in Indonesia, for instance, is what he hopes to accomplish in appearing for three hours, in a country that now has a U.S. favorability rating of 15 percent or so. He has apparently planned a meeting with moderate Muslim leaders. That is an important first step, but it only begins to address the administration’s problem with public diplomacy that so many others have raised.

How are relations with Thailand?

Relations are good, but Thailand’s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has his own agenda. He very much sees himself as replacing Lee Kuan Yew, the long-time president of Singapore, as the next leader of the Southeast Asian countries. He will want to accommodate President Bush, and in fact, has already acceded to Bush’s demand that terrorism be a major focus of this APEC meeting when in fact APEC is really a body that was designed to discuss trade and investment issues. At the same time, he will need to be perceived as independent of the United States and capable of defending the region’s interests where they clearly differ from U.S. interests, as they might on trade or even some human rights issues. The prime minister has, for example, already indicated that he does not believe that the United States really understands the situation in Burma, and he is prepared to resist U.S. pressure on that issue.

Will Iraq be discussed much at APEC?

Iraq will be discussed. President Bush may raise it publicly, particularly since there is a new Security Council resolution. President Bush could feel much more confident asking for assistance— both in terms of troops and money. Japan, of course, has already anted up $1.5 billion with a promise of as much as a total of $5 billion over the next several years. Australia and the Philippines have also been supportive, despite strong popular opposition.

Is the United States unpopular throughout Asia, even in non-Muslim nations?

U.S. popularity varies significantly from one country to the next. There is resistance throughout the region, of course, to the United States simply coming in and telling Asia what it needs to do. Overall, however, I think what has happened in the past few years is that President Bush has forged relatively strong personal ties with some of the leaders of these countries but he has lost the publics of these countries. When I traveled to the region last year, what I heard was strong support among the official elite but significant concern and opposition among the general public to U.S. policy, particularly toward Iraq— even before the invasion. A lot of people in Southeast Asia used to look to the United States not only as a global economic leader but also as their strongest ally in terms of human rights issues. A number of these countries still have authoritarian regimes and the United States was viewed as a country that would come in and ensure that pressure would be maintained on the leaders of these countries to move forward in terms of political reform.

I think that sense is largely gone. Many people seem to believe that the United States is so concerned with fighting the war on terror or pursuing its policies in Iraq that it is willing to sacrifice other issues to get those jobs done. Certainly, too, the overall perception of the Bush administration’s unilateral approach to international relations has cost it support among the public throughout the region.

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