Before President George W. Bush had left Washington to attend the leaders summit of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in South Korea and to visit Japan, China and Mongolia, a top U.S. official had warned American reporters that they shouldn’t expect the trip to lead to major diplomatic breakthroughs. Now that President Bush has returned back from Asia it’s be safe to conclude that as a headline in the Washington Post put it, "Bush’s Asia Trip Meets Low Expectations."
Not only did the U.S. President fail to get a respite from domestic problems during his eight-day Asia tour. He also didn’t have a lot opportunities to demonstrate the energetic leadership upon which he prides himself.
President Bush did have many photo opportunities during the trip and he delivered a few inspiring speeches -- saluting freedom in Kyoto, joining the other APEC leaders in a group photo, attending church services in Beijing, taking part in official festivities in Ulan Bator. But the colorful images and the high rhetoric couldn’t conceal his inability to deliver any meaningful results.
In Japan, President Bush applauded the strong ties that have developed between the United States and Japan during his presidency. But he failed to win Japanese agreement to resume U.S. beef imports and to implement the agreement on the redeployment of U.S. forces. In South Korea, the meeting between President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun was followed by a decision by South Korean Cabinet to back a proposal to withdraw 300 of the 3,200 South Korean troops in Iraq. That move was a serious political setback for the American President who has been facing growing opposition in Washington to his Iraq policy. And while the leaders summit of the APEC forum concluded with a declaration of support for a successful World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting in Hong Kong next month, President Bush and his aides will now be dealing with a more protectionist U.S. Congress as they try to exert U.S. leadership on the trade front in Hong Kong.
But it the stop in China that proved to be the most frustrating to President Bush. The Chinese leader announced during President Bush’s visit to Beijing that they agreed to purchase 70 jetliners from the Boeing company. But at the same time, there was almost no progress on the other issues raised by the American President, including currency, intellectual property, human rights and North Korea.
In fact, the Chinese refused to release political prisoners and openly detained political dissidents, including a Christian during the visit, sending a clear message to Washington that Beijing would continue to oppose in no uncertain terms the Bush Administration’s aggressive program of spreading democracy and freedom worldwide and that they will liberalize its political system at a pace at which Beijing is comfortable.
Some observers have suggested that President Bush’s unremarkable tour of Asia brought with it a sense of declining American influence in the region. But there is another way of appraising the recent Asia excursion. What President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice are confronting in East Asia is a geo-political and geo-economic reality that is making it more and more difficult for them to advance their unilateral agenda. A politically weaker President Bush who has been losing domestic and international support for his ambitious plan to transform Iraq and the Middle East, is facing a world -- and an East Asia region --- that is more resistant to Washington’s pressure on a variety of policy issues.
In that context, China seems to be one of those global powers that is insisting it will be ready to cooperate with the U.S. on the diplomatic and trade front and on other issues, like North Korea’s nuclear crisis, but only as part of arrangements that involve both Chinese as well American concessions.
"China is a big, growing, strong country, and it’s very important for me to maintain a good working relationship with the leadership here," is the way President Bush responded to journalists’ question about his approach towards Beijing. And indeed, "good working relationship" with the "big, growing, strong" China as well as with other East Asian countries means that Washington will have to deal with them as equals, by taking into consideration their interests and concerns and by refraining from forcing on them American political values.