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Economy: Bush’s Legacy on Asia 'Not Terribly Positive'

Interviewee: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 15, 2006

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Elizabeth C. Economy, CFR’s director of Asian studies, says that President Bush’s legacy in Asia “will not be a terribly positive one.” With Bush on his way to the annual summit meeting of Asian nations at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, held this year in Hanoi, she says Bush could have used the occasion “to unite the region behind some broader vision on a particular issue, for example energy and environmental security.”

Economy, who has written a prize-winning book, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China’s Future, says “there has never been strong support for the war on Iraq within Asia, and there is very little sense in the region that President Bush understands or is sensitive to or cares about the issues that confront Asia.”

President Bush is en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hanoi. He’s also going to visit Singapore and Indonesia, and he’s already stopped in Russia for an unofficial visit. Is there any particular significance to this year’s meeting of APEC?

I think there could have been some real significance to this year’s APEC leaders’ meeting. President Bush could have used APEC as a vehicle to reassert U.S.leadership in the region, to unite the region behind some broader vision on a particular issue, for example energy and environmental security. This is an issue, unlike the war on terror, that really does engage all the major players in the region. Instead, I think what we’re going to see is just a litany of issues and President Bush in both the bilaterals and leaders’ summit simply trying to forge ahead on issues like promotion of free trade, North Korea, and infectious diseases. I don’t think we’re going to see the president really articulate a vision for the region.

Well environment is your particular issue. You’ve written a great deal on this subject, particularly about China’s environmental problems, but this president has shown very little interest in the environment, has he not?

That’s true. The environment has not been an issue that has engaged President Bush very deeply. However, in the context of energy and the environment he could become interested because certainly high oil prices have been at the top of his agenda during the past year.

Explain what you mean by “energy and the environment.”

You have right now a confluence of two very pressing global issues. One is securing enough energy for the future, particularly as countries such as China and India are growing more rapidly and basing their economies on fossil fuels such as coal and oil. At the same time you have the issue of climate change, which is largely related to emissions, such as carbon dioxide, that are released when you burn fossil fuels. We’ve just learned, for example, that China is likely to surpass the United States as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide by 2009, which is a full decade earlier than anybody anticipated. This is again because its economy is growing so rapidly, and it is fueled overwhelmingly by coal. This nexus of energy and the environment really does provide an opportunity for President Bush to set a global agenda and at the same time potentially salvage his legacy domestically.

Do the Asian countries themselves see this as an issue or are they trying to push it under the rug?

Asian countries do see this as a real issue. Japan is quite engaged and India and China are both working hard to gain the benefits of the clean development mechanism, in which other countries and companies can help meet their reduction targets by undertaking projects such as funding alternative energies or working on reforestation. I believe there are more such projects in India than anywhere else in the world, and for developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil the global climate change issue offers enormous opportunities to make technological advances on clean energy and address issues like land degradation and have it paid for by other countries.

But is China doing much about it?

They are not being as aggressive or as proactive as they ought to be, but this is part of a general pattern of how they address their domestic environmental challenges as well. Again, I think it is part of the reason why this would have been such a good issue for President Bush to press at APEC. Certainly, the Chinese know they will be severely affected by climate change, from the melting of the glaciers in northwest China to the submergence of much of China’s wealthy eastern coastline from sea level rise.

Let’s go to some political issues. On trade the Asian leaders have put off for a year a U.S. proposal to have a free trade area for all of Asia. That obviously wasn’t a viable proposal I take it.

Over the past three to five years there have been a lot of moves made within Asia to advance free trade goals, primarily sponsored by China through the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] plus 1 [China] mechanism. The reality of what has been accomplished may be somewhat less than all the hype, but the Chinese certainly have made a lot of noise on the topic. For the United States, which wants to have all the “i’s” dotted and the “t’s” crossed before signing off on any trade agreement, I think a free trade agreement within the APEC region would seem a very distant prospect, almost unimaginable. We have our own issue with farm subsidies for example. Just look at what happened yesterday withVietnamand the failure within Congress to have Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for Vietnam granted.

Do you get the impression that this protectionist sentiment is really sweeping the United States now or is this a sort of blip? The Democrats now have the majority in Congress and they’ve become more protectionist in recent years.

I know there is a lot of concern about a protectionist Democrat-led Congress, but frankly, if you look at the vote on Vietnam that just took place—and this is something for example that we granted to China at the time that China acceded to the World Trade Organization—you can see that more than sixty Republicans in the House voted against granting PNTR. So I don’t think it’s fair to claim this is a Democrat issue or problem. Whatever the background politics within the House, what this signals is that the president and the U.S. business community are going to have to get energized behind the issue. There’s absolutely no reason why China should have been granted PNTR and Vietnam with a much smaller economy that is going to have much smaller impact on the U.S. economy (and arguably lesser human rights abuses) should not be.

I assume the Vietnam bill will eventually pass.

I think it will. It’s just disappointing from the perspective of the administration and from the perspective of the host country Vietnam that this couldn’t happen in advance of the president’s trip. It really should have.

Is there much support outside of Japan in Asia for penalizing North Korea for its nuclear test?

Well, the Chinese have finally begun to step up to the plate. They seem to recognize now that their legitimacy and international prestige are on the line and that it is not enough simply to maintain the talks (and of course, they haven’t even been able to do that) but that actually at a certain point in time the international community is going to expect to see some progress. The Chinese have gotten to the point where they’re willing to be a little more forceful with the North Koreans, and that is certainly essential to moving the process forward.

Some of your colleagues have said to me that they think the North Koreans are just going to wait out the Bush administration that they will stall until there’s a new president.

Well, that may be their strategy. I don’t know how much of a difference that’s going to make. Depending on who is elected, it will probably make a fairly significant difference in the rhetoric and diplomacy surrounding our policy. That may, in fact, be enough to jump-start real negotiations. A new administration may be willing to stress the carrots a bit more than the sticks, but certainly the end game is unlikely to change.

The Democrats have been much more in favor of dealing directly with North Korea. This whole issue seems to me a silly distinction since we do talk to the North Koreans.

We do have back channel discussions with the North Koreans. I don’t believe that formal bilateral talks are the ticket to a new North Korean policy, although again, opening the door might help energize the multilateral negotiations.

What kind of legacy is Bush leaving in Asia? He certainly hasn’t shown much interest in Asia except for China and Japan.

President Bush unfortunately defined his approach to Asia at the 2001 APEC meeting in Shanghai when he turned APEC on its head and made the meeting about the war on terror. While the region might have grudgingly accepted the “you are either with us or against us” diplomacy at that particular moment—just one month after 9/11—I don’t think there has been enough change in our diplomatic approach since that time. There has never been strong support for the war on Iraq within Asia, and there is very little sense in the region that President Bush understands or is sensitive to or cares about the issues that confront Asia.

The other problem now is that there doesn’t seem to be an official within the cabinet or even subcabinet level who is either expert or deeply engaged on Asia-related issues. There is no [former Deputy Secretary] Robert Zoellick to set overarching strategy, and [Treasury Secretary] Henry M. Paulson’s brief is too narrow. So without someone strong to define a new Asia policy or approach, I think the President’s legacy will not be a terribly positive one.

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