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Bush Tests His Influence in Asia

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated November 17, 2006

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In his first international trip since the U.S. midterm elections, a politically weakened President Bush is on a Southeast Asian tour for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Vietnam. After meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard in Hanoi, Bush reflected on lessons learned from the Vietnam War for the conflict in Iraq, saying, "We'll succeed unless we quit." He also stressed the importance of participating in the APEC meeting as a forum to discuss the North Korean nuclear crisis and free trade. But some analysts say his trip will probably do little to boost Washington’s declining influence in Asia (Guardian). A chief U.S.-backed initiative, a huge Asia-Pacific free-trade zone, has been pushed off until next year’s forum in Australia (AP). While U.S. clout shrinks, China’s influence grows. Beijing, fresh off negotiating North Korea’s agreement to return to multilateral talks and playing host to an African summit, has become a sought-after trading partner in the region (BBC).  

CFR Senior Fellow Elizabeth C. Economy tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that the White House has failed to substantively change its “with us or against us” antiterrorism policy set out in the 2001 APEC summit after 9/11. She says “there is very little sense in the region that President Bush understands or is sensitive to or cares about the issues that confront Asia.”  Even Bush’s ability to claim policy success in Vietnam, which celebrates its “coming out” party by hosting its first major international meeting, has been harmed by Congress’ decision this week to deny Hanoi permanent normal trade relations (LAT) Both the Vietnamese government and the Bush administration paved the way for improved relations just before the trip: Hanoi deported a U.S. citizen considered a political prisoner held on terrorism charges (Reuters), and the U.S. State Department dropped Vietnam from a blacklist of countries violating religious freedom. The United States also plays a major role as the biggest importer in Vietnam’s burgeoning economy, described in this Backgrounder. But fears over a flood of cheap Vietnamese goods nudged representatives in the House to give in to protectionist pressures. This Congressional Service Report takes a closer look at the debate over Vietnam’s trade relations status (PDF).

President Bush could stake out a new role for the United States in Asia during this trip, writes blogger and former New York Times correspondent Richard Halloran, “but don’t count on it.” (RealClearPolitics.com). The importance of making a splash at the forum may be minimal, however, because of questions about APEC’s own viability. APEC’s member countries account for about 60 percent of the world’s GDP and a third of the world’s population, but an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune says this year’s meeting “may be the last opportunity for the twenty-one-member organization to rescue itself from irrelevance.” The paper predicts failure on this front because the North Korean nuclear crisis, an issue “beyond APEC's purpose and competence,” will be the major agenda item.

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