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President Bush Faces a Skeptical Asia

Authors: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, and Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies
October 16, 2003
International Herald Tribune

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President George W. Bush's Asia team has its work cut out for it. In addition to grappling with the thorny problem of North Korea, it must now craft a message for the president to take with him to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting this weekend.

Early indications are that the president is poised to bear down hard on APEC members, calling on them to increase their role in combating terrorism; to revive the discussions of market access and tariff reductions that fell apart during the recent trade talks in Cancún, Mexico; and to put pressure on China to revalue the yuan as a means of stanching the flood of U.S. manufacturing jobs leaving the United States for Asia.

Such a message is likely to be poorly received by most of the world leaders attending the summit meeting. From their perspective, the war on terror is in danger of being derailed by growing anti-U.S. sentiment. These leaders also have their own domestic economic concerns, and believe the United States is misguided in its focus on others' economic policies as the source of its woes. In addition, several leaders in Asia will be engaged in election campaigns in 2004, and are unlikely to be interested in American proposals that don't meet their immediate political needs.

Ratcheting up the investment of most Asian leaders in the war on terror will be difficult. Certainly, after the bombings in Bali and Jakarta, Southeast Asian leaders no longer need convincing that the threat from Islamic terrorism is real, and the United States has scored some significant successes in cooperating with a number of Asian countries. Among others, Washington is working with Thailand to improve port security; it is providing substantial assistance to the Indonesian police and military to improve their counter-terrorism capacity; and it is expending significant resources to train and arm the Philippine military in its anti-terrorism work.

Yet real success remains elusive. Many in Southeast Asia worry that the war on terrorism relies too heavily on military tools to the detriment of more nuanced strategies aimed at addressing the roots of terrorism. In Indonesia, for example, the Pew Foundation recently reported that the percentage of Indonesians who held a positive image of the United States fell from 61 percent in the summer of 2002 to 15 percent last summer. Unless the United States develops a more calibrated approach, other U.S. strategic initiatives also have the potential to roil politics throughout the region, at a time when few Asian leaders have the standing to weather such domestic turmoil. White House discussions about developing new U.S. military bases in Australia, Vietnam and Malaysia are unsettling to the region's security dynamic.

Most Asians welcome the U.S. presence in the region, and all expect the United States to continue to provide the larger security umbrella that ensures regional stability. Yet the stationing of new U.S. troops throughout Southeast Asia has become a source of significant concern among Asian publics in the wake of the recent U.S. focus on pre-emption and regime change. Asian countries have all traditionally been strong supporters of the norms of sovereignty, territorial integrity and nonintervention. In Indonesia, 74 percent of the public is worried that the United States might become a military threat to their country.

Bush's economic message must also be refined in order to make progress in meeting U.S. objectives. First, the White House must take note of the new kid on the block. China - the region's other significant power - has been actively engaged in a diplomatic and economic campaign to enhance its image in Asia, fast-forwarding a regional free trade agreement, trumpeting positive economic synergies between itself and the rest of Asia and signing onto regional security accords it had previously rejected.

China's foreign-policy public relations campaign has only underscored the perceived lack of sensitivity of the Bush administration to the concerns of its Asian partners. The administration needs to consider that the president's visit and his message will be closely compared to the recent trip by China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, to a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bali. Wen worked hard to assuage regional fears of China's economic prowess and offered a grab bag of goodies: China is going to be a big market for ASEAN goods, a big investor in Southeast Asian markets and an increasing source of development assistance for the region.

Thus far, the administration's message to Asia has been dominated by demands that China revalue its currency to protect American jobs, and that Asians improve market access for U.S. goods. Asian economists - much like U.S. economists - have not been convinced that the value of China's currency, or their own trade practices, are responsible for U.S. unemployment, and tend to place America's problems squarely on U.S. domestic economic policies.

Moreover, the United States is unlikely to make much progress in its efforts to develop bilateral free trade agreements in Asia. Critics have condemned U.S. agricultural subsidies, and most of the poorer countries in Asia are not ready to enter into negotiations over rules concerning foreign investment, antitrust regulation or transparency in government procurement. These were central issues in the breakdown of the Cancún talks and are likely to crop up again during any bilateral trade negotiations with the United States.

George W. Bush once promised to be "humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course." As he prepares to meet with his Asian counterparts, he should reclaim these words. At the very least, this means entering into honest discussions and avoiding the regional stereotype of what the United States means by "consultations": The American arrives and then tells us what to do.

Certainly, the United States must maintain its own priorities at APEC. Yet if the president is to be effective, he must spend time preparing his message by actively engaging with the problems of the region, developing a strategy that accounts for the political and economic interests of America's Asian partners and ensuring the United States is leading by example on issues such as market access. Otherwise, Bush risks a further slide in the U.S. leadership role in Asia, and an Asia that increasingly says "No."


Elizabeth Economy is director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Adam Segal is a senior fellow for China studies at the council.

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