Cautious in the Asia-Pacific

Published : Dec 03, 2004 00:00 IST

The re-election of Bush is viewed with cautious optimism by leaders of East Asian countries.

in Singapore

THE re-election of George Walker Bush as the President of the United States was acknowledged with the customary congratulatory messages that leaders send on such occasions. But expectations from the second-term Bush presidency are based on realistic assessments.

The diplomactic tack Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi adopted is one of bonhomie in tune with his willingness to be a junior partner of the U.S. Japan's position as a "military dependant" of the U.S. limits its room for manoeuvre in foreign policy, but a potent factor is that the Japanese people, chagrined at Koizumi's action of sending "non-combat" troops to Iraq, disapprove of his playing second fiddle to Bush.

For South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, Bush's re-election is about the possibilities in the U.S.' diplomatic calculus on North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, recently elected for a fourth successive term despite the unpopular deployment of troops in Iraq, found himself doubly vindicated by the electoral triumph of the man who authored the invasion in the face of an international outcry.

OF all the diplomatic challenges that the U.S. faces in the Asia-Pacific region, its dealings with China are of utmost importance. The reason has much to do with China's ability to take independent positions on various issues in the international arena.

Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed that the development of a "healthy and stable relationship" between the two countries would be possible on the basis of the "cooperative" engagement that Bush had promised.

Two critical issues, Taiwan and North Korea's nuclear weapons programme will dominate Sino-American engagement during Bush's second term. As for Iraq, Beijing has so far made its views known without really upsetting the U.S. applecart. It is a moot point whether China and other major powers in the United Nations will allow the U.S. to perpetrate its heinous acts of aggression in Iraq. It is against this background that China is beginning to emphasise, in its dealings with the U.S., the need to handle "properly" the emerging issue of Iran's uranium enrichment programme in a manner consistent with the perceptions of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

North Korea, the other nodal point in Bush's infamous "axis of evil", impinges on China-American interactions. Bush needs Hu Jintao to push forward the stalled six-party talks. These parleys, which have only underlined the limits to Bush's grandiose visions of American military might, involve not only the U.S. and China, the host, but also the two Koreas, Japan and Russia.

On Taiwan, the issue that can make or mar the long-term relations between the two countries, China is assessing how far Bush might be willing to abide by the spirit of the stance he took during his first term. Bush had called upon both Taiwan and China to refrain from making moves that could alter the status quo regarding Taiwan's position as a non-sovereign territory. Aware that the message was directed at Taiwan, Hu Jintao appreciates Bush for his pledge to adhere to the One-China policy.

Authoritative Chinese sources told Frontline that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's articulation of Washington's line on Taiwan, during his visit to Beijing shortly before Bush's re-election, was "positive" in tone. In the short run, though, Bush's response to Taiwan's frantic efforts to buy sophisticated U.S. weapons will determine the extent of such positivism in actual practice.

China's doubts about the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy persist. On balance, however, the strategic reason for the tone of Hu Jintao's greetings to Bush can be traced to the dynamics of the U.S. military presence in East Asia. Particularly relevant is the controversial view of Barry Bunzan, an influential Western thinker on contemporary international relations, that "China benefits" from the U.S. military activism in East Asia.

Paraphrased, the argument runs as follows:

The U.S. presence leaves the East Asian neighbours of China with the luxury of allowing Washington to be the "ringholder" in regional security affairs and to balance Beijing. This, in turn, ensures that China's neighbours, including the U.S.-dependent Japan, do not become great military powers. Should the U.S., for some reason, decide to vacate East Asia, China will then have to deal with only a handful of relatively "weak" neighbours.

"Offensive realists'' such as John Mearsheimer have argued that the U.S. will stay engaged in East Asia in the foreseeable future. Having gone to great lengths in preventing the emergence of Nazi Germany as also imperial Japan and the Soviet Union as long-term rivals or "peer competitors", the U.S. will now do so to keep China in check, it is said. Given these complexities, Hu Jintao has opted to deal with the U.S. as it is, rather than as it should be.

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