Regional Overview

Oct — Dec 2001
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U.S.-Asia Relations on the Upswing, But . . .

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Ralph A. Cossa
Pacific Forum

As the Year of the Horse comes galloping in, U.S.-Asia relations, when compared to the rocky start experienced in the opening months of the Bush administration, now appear to be on the upswing throughout the region. The one exception is on the Korean Peninsula, where Pyongyang’s refusal to take “yes” for an answer has resulted in a steady decline in U.S.-DPRK relations while adding some level of stress to U.S.-ROK relations as well.   Despite this post 9-11 upswing, some problems remain and may grow, especially if (as seems inevitable) Washington follows through with its Dec. announcement to formally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in six months.  This, plus the Bush administration’s current tendency to view all events through an anti-terrorism lens, has left many in Asia wondering about America’s overall national security strategy and President George W. Bush’s vision for Asia, even though the new U.S. president received generally good reviews for his performance at the annual APEC Leaders’ Meeting in Shanghai in October.  The White House’s effort to closely associate itself with the APEC Shanghai Accord’s blueprint for future regional economic cooperation demonstrates the Bush administration’s interest in breathing new life into this important Asia-Pacific multilateral forum.

U.S.-Asia Relations Improving

After a somewhat rough beginning (see “Bush Asia Policy Off to a Rocky Start,” Comparative Connections, Vol. 3, No. 2), U.S. relations with East Asian nations have gradually improved, helped in no small measure by feelings of sympathy and support generated in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the U.S.   National self-interest lies at the base of this support.  As one U.S. security specialist wisely noted, Asian nations (like most others) cannot afford to have the U.S.-led war on terrorism fail; the consequences for all would be too great.  Neither can they afford to have the U.S. campaign succeed without their perceived support, lest they run the risk of being deemed irrelevant in the emerging new world order.

President Bush’s visit to Shanghai in October the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting also provided an opportunity for many Asian leaders to meet face-to-face with the new U.S. leader and most came away impressed, and a bit more comfortable about Washington’s attitude and commitment toward Asia.  Unfortunately, the war on terrorism forced the White House to cancel the president’s other planned stops (Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing) and pre-empted his long-awaited comprehensive Asia policy statement.

Russia.  The new post post-Cold War strategic relationship between Washington and Moscow continued to take shape over the past quarter, spurred by two face-to-ace meetings between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin (in Shanghai during the October APEC gathering and in Washington and Texas during Putin’s November visit to the U.S.).  The chemistry between Bush and his Russian counterpart remains positive and no doubt helped the two states avoid the disastrous consequences that many had earlier predicted would come with a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.  As will be discussed in more detail shortly, this announcement, combined with reported caveats associated with Washington’s nuclear reduction plans and indications that the Pentagon is contemplating future nuclear testing, will ensure more rocky days ahead, even if the relationship remains on a generally positive trajectory.

Japan.  U.S. officials have expressed great satisfaction with the “magnificent” Japanese support for the on-going war on terrorism and are genuinely pleased with Tokyo’s willingness to be a more active security partner, albeit with significant restrictions aimed at keeping military operations well within the limits of Japan’s Peace Constitution, as currently interpreted.  Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s efforts to mend fences with Japan’s Chinese and Korean neighbors after last quarter’s controversies (over textbooks and Koizumi’s August visit to Yasukuni Shrine) were also praised by Washington.  On the economic front, Koizumi’s reform efforts continue to receive strong support from the Bush administration, but Washington’s current patience while waiting for real results may start running thin, especially if the U.S. economy does not begin to recover and long-standing trade tensions continue to fester.

China.  Sino-U.S. relations saw significant improvement over the past quarter, building on the upward momentum established by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s July visit to Beijing.  Chinese President Jiang Zemin was delighted that President Bush came to Shanghai despite the intense nature of the war on terrorism’s Afghanistan campaign and was even more pleased when he agreed to pursue a “cooperative, constructive relationship” with China.  Even though Bush added a third “c” – “candid” – to remind his Chinese interlocutors that differences remained and would not be swept under the table, Beijing seemed relived that the old “strategic competitor” slogan had finally been replaced with a more positive mantra.  For its part, Washington seemed equally pleased with the outcome of the meeting, with Jiang permitting an anti-terrorism statement – the first political statement ever issued at an APEC Leaders’ Meeting – in addition to the normal economic declaration and otherwise providing Chinese support (with caveats) to the war on terrorism.  While it would be wrong to say that a fundamental shift in U.S.-China relations has occurred (see “China: Odd Man Out in the Evolving New World Order?” PacNet 44) relations are clearly on the upswing, which makes it easier for both sides to deal with the many thorny issues that will continue to plague the relationship.

Taiwan.  Some eyebrows were raised in Washington when Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian announced his decision to boycott the APEC Leaders’ Meeting (due to real and perceived Chinese insults) just as President Bush was about to conduct his first face-to-face meeting with Jiang Zemin.  The Taiwan leadership has taken great pains since then, however, to assure Washington that it is not trying to undermine Sino-U.S. relations and that the Democratic Progressive Party’s impressive gains during the December legislative elections and its apparent impending coalition with the new Taiwan Solidarity Union (whose spiritual leader is former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui) will not lead to a more confrontational policy toward the mainland.  Meanwhile, Taipei seems to have gotten over its initial fears that Washington would somehow cut a deal with Beijing that would swap China’s support for the war on terrorism for a reduced U.S. commitment (or even a halt in arms sales) to Taiwan.  Such a deal would, in truth, be politically impossible for any U.S. administration to pull off and would be unthinkable today, given the current administration’s sentiments toward Taiwan.

Korean Peninsula.  U.S.-ROK relations remain generally positive and President Bush had a good meeting with ROK President Kim Dae-jung in Shanghai, although it failed to completely erase the memories of the considerably less successful first encounter between the two allies in Washington in March.  It will likely take a presidential visit to Seoul – and smoother diplomacy than Bush frequently exhibits – to overcome growing complaints in the ROK that U.S. hard line attitudes toward North Korea are primarily to blame for the current lack of progress in North-South relations.  Such views are ill-conceived, but they persist and must be dealt with.  The reality is that Washington continues to stand behind its offer for dialogue “any time, any place” with Pyongyang and it is North Korea’s insistence on preconditions – the most preposterous being a demand that Bush denounce his current policies and return to the policies of the Clinton administration if it wants to talk to the North – that continues to block U.S.-DPRK cooperation.

Southeast Asia.  U.S.-Southeast Asia relations, while mixed and in some cases quite tentative, range from, at worst, cordial to extremely good.  Ties with the Philippines are most improved, given Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s unqualified support for the war on terrorism, which has manifested itself in low-key but previously unthinkable active U.S. participation (in an advisory capacity) in Manila’s own anti-terrorism struggle against the Abu Sayyaf.  Thailand has also been generally supportive of its ally’s anti-terrorism effort (while trying not to antagonize its own Muslim community) and U.S.-Singapore ties remain on solid ground.

The picture is not all rosy, however.  Of particular concern has been the politically expedient backsliding of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri from her initially strong expressions of support during her September visit to Washington. While Megawati no doubt felt that tempering her earlier remarks was necessary to keep her Muslim constituents quiet, this will likely reduce the enthusiasm with which Washington seeks to provide support to her beleaguered administration.  The strategic rationale behind the need to help Indonesian democracy succeed has not changed, however, even if Washington’s litmus test for determining who gets what kind of support has shifted since 9-11.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has perfected the art of saying the wrong thing (in Washington’s eyes), has been sending mixed messages.  He has strongly condemned Islamic terrorism in statements that set him apart from many of the world’s Muslim leaders (even if one suspects domestic political motives behind many of his utterances).  All indications are that Mahathir had a very cordial meeting in Shanghai with President Bush, even if his news conference shortly afterward about the evils of globalization quickly tempered any hopes by Washington that a new, more mellow Mahathir might be emerging.  Mahathir reportedly also blocked a proposed expression of support for the U.S. military campaign against terrorism at the November ASEAN Summit, although one suspects that other equally unenthused leaders were more than willing to let Mahathir carry the water on this issue.  He did join the consensus statement condemning terrorism and the Sept. 11 attack as “an assault on all of us,” thus keeping ASEAN in general on Washington’s good side.

South Asia.  Washington’s relations with India and Pakistan also improved significantly during the past quarter, even as relations between the two nuclear weapons-equipped neighbors deteriorated significantly, especially after the bloody Dec. 13 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament by alleged Kashmiri extremists.   The politically expedient lifting of the remaining sanctions imposed by the U.S. after India and Pakistan came out of the nuclear closet with their 1998 tests made sense, given both their general ineffectiveness (few others supported this U.S. effort) and the need to have both states (and especially Pakistan) firmly in the U.S. anti-terrorism camp.  But going back to “business as usual” neglects the real dangers that lie ahead if either country takes the next logical (or, in my view, illogical) step: the operational field deployment of nuclear warhead-equipped missiles.  This would greatly increase the danger of inadvertent or unauthorized use, while encouraging both pre-emptive strikes and a “use or lose” philosophy that would “justify” a nuclear response to a conventional attack (or perhaps even threat of imminent attack) against the other’s field-deployed sites.  And, while one assumes that both sides’ nuclear warheads are tightly guarded today, deploying them to the field makes them that much more vulnerable to seizure by terrorists or even by renegade national forces.

In truth, the U.S. is today talking about going beyond “business as usual” to establish a deeper military-to-military relationship with India, to include the initiation of arms sales, something Washington has resisted doing in the past.  Yet there is little talk of strings being attached to this increased cooperation.  At a minimum, Washington should seek – indeed demand – assurances (privately, if not publicly) that India will refrain from field deployment of its nuclear weapons as a quid pro quo for any enhanced military-to-military cooperation. Even more effective would be a coordinated message to New Delhi and Islamabad from the four major regional powers – the U.S., Russia, China, and Japan – that “business as usual” will cease if either field deploys its nuclear weapons.  Unilateral sanctions after the fact have proven to be ineffective, but a carefully coordinated multilateral reminder of the political and economic costs involved in future destabilizing actions just might preclude both from taking the next dangerous step.

ABM Treaty Withdrawal Implications

The ABM Treaty appears destined to end, not with a bang, but with a whimper.  Earlier doomsday predictions notwithstanding, Washington’s announcement last month that it intends to withdraw from the treaty (the required six months notice was given on Dec. 13) is not expected to usher in a new Cold War between the United States and Russia.  Neither is it likely to undermine the other Soviet-era strategic arms reduction agreements or to prompt a new arms race between the two nuclear giants.  In fact, both sides have agreed to significant new reductions in their respective nuclear arsenals coincident with the treaty withdrawal announcement.

Nonetheless, abrogating the ABM Treaty was a singularly bad idea.  While Moscow has little alternative but to accept Washington’s decision and to proceed with the crafting of a new, more positive relationship with Washington, this unilateral decision damages President Putin’s domestic credibility and makes it harder for him to expand his level of cooperation with the U.S.  While the Russians had initially been inflexible about amending the ABM Treaty, Putin had demonstrated a certain amount of political courage since Sept. 11 by announcing his willingness to adjust the treaty to take Washington’s security concerns into account.  The announcement comes across as an unnecessary snub to a new-found friend.  Putin’s critics in the Duma will take great delight in pointing out the foolishness of trying to cooperate with Washington.

The decision has also revitalized and reinforced earlier accusations of U.S. unilateralism that the Bush administration, in its thus far skillful handling of the war on terrorism, had been slowly overcoming.  The man who promised the American people “leadership without arrogance” once again seems to have forgotten the second half of that pledge.  Reinforcing a unilateralist image hardly seems to be in America’s best national interest at a time when Washington is still attempting to hold together or even build upon its current coalition against international terrorism, especially when one recognizes that garnering international support for whatever step comes after Afghanistan will be even more difficult.

Washington’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the ABM Treaty may also unnecessarily strain relations with Japan and the Republic of Korea.  While Tokyo has taken some giant leaps forward in its bilateral security cooperation with Washington, it remains deeply committed to global arms control efforts and sees the latest action (and Washington’s continuing disdain for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) as evidence of a growing gap in strategic thinking between these two important allies.  Likewise, Seoul worries about the impact this move will have on already-strained relations between Washington and Pyongyang and on North Korea’s already growing hesitancy to negotiate in good faith with the South.

Ironically, the announcement could prove to be a mixed blessing for Sino-U.S. relations.  On the one hand, Beijing was quick to express its condemnation, as it does over any decision that even remotely promotes missile defense.  On the other hand, it may finally prompt Beijing into serious dialogue with Washington – discussions that Beijing previously seemed to be avoiding, hoping instead that its strategic partner, Russia, would somehow be able to hold the U.S. missile defense program in check.

Of great significance in this regard was President Bush’s decision to call President Jiang at the time of the ABM announcement, to ensure him that neither the treaty withdrawal nor America’s missile defense plans (which could now more aggressively be pursued) were aimed at China.  Bush then repeated his offer to engage China in a strategic dialogue that would address both nations’ legitimate missile-related security concerns.

In my own discussions with Chinese officials and other senior security specialists, I get the distinct impression that China somehow feels that improved Sino-U.S. relations and cooperation on sensitive issues such as missile defense are primarily up to Washington.  China, they appear to argue (although not in these terms), is like a willing partner-in-waiting, hoping to be seduced, if only Washington would come courting.  (My counter-argument, that in an era of equal opportunity, either side should be free to make advances, does not seem to resonate.) At the risk of hopelessly overplaying this analogy, I would argue that the Bush phone call and offer of strategic dialogue is the diplomatic equivalent to Washington’s knocking on China’s door with a bouquet in hand.

It’s time for Beijing to stop playing hard to get. The best way for China to protect its own national security interests – i.e., to ensure that Bush’s missile defense system will in fact not negate China’s strategic deterrent capability (as Washington currently promises) – is to sit down and discuss the issue while Washington is still willing to talk. By the time Mr. Putin decided to talk about changing the ABM Treaty, Washington had decided to go in another direction.  Beijing should not make the same mistake.

The Vision Thing

As noted earlier, President Bush has yet to give a major address outlining his Asia policy.  While Secretary Powell did lay out many of its components during his swing through Asia in July, there has yet to be a comprehensive statement regarding, for example, Washington’s interpretation of what constitutes a more “normal” Japan or how its new “cooperative, constructive, candid” relationship with China or its expanded military relationship with India fit into Washington’s overall security vision for Asia.

In the absence of such a statement, many in the region (and especially in China) have turned to the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), delivered to the Congress on Oct. 1, as the most definitive expression of U.S. national security strategy in general and East Asia policy in particular.  Even though this document is primarily a Defense Department force planning document – “the product of the senior civilian and military leadership of the Department of Defense” – and not an administration-wide statement of national security strategy, it has undergone careful scrutiny in Asia (while being largely ignored in the U.S.), especially since it “benefitted from extensive consultation with the President.”

As RADM Michael McDevitt (USN, ret.) points out (“The Quadrennial Defense Review and East Asia,” PacNet 43), the QDR “is very useful in detailing the overarching strategic concepts and world view of the Department of Defense. [It] confirms attention to the rise of China, the importance of allies, a desire for increased access for U.S. forces, the importance of having capable and militarily credible forces forward in the region, and a ringing confirmation of the importance of East Asia as a long term U.S. interest.”  All of this is consistent with Defense Department East Asia strategy pronouncements during the previous administration, but it has nonetheless been cited as evidence of an American “strategic shift” toward Asia.  While many of us who have spent a lifetime working on East Asia security affairs would welcome a greater awareness in Washington to Asia’s growing importance, the reality of the matter is this: if the strategic pendulum is swinging from Europe to Asia, it has currently gotten stuck at Diego Garcia and will likely remain lodged there, over Southwest Asia, for some time to come.  How Asia fits in the greater national security calculus remains to be defined, especially in the post-9-11 environment.  (The QDR was released after Sept. 11 but had been drafted well before the horrific attacks and largely reflects pre-9-11 thinking, even if numerous references to homeland defense and fighting terrorism were quickly added.)

As this article was being finalized, reports were circulating that President Bush planned to visit Tokyo and Seoul in February.  If this proves to be true, one would hope that a major Asia policy address would precede or coincide with his overdue journey to the Far East.  President Bush should also use this occasion to underscore his “any time, any place” offer to North Korea while emphasizing that his policies are in lock step with the ROK (and Japan) when it comes to their mutual willingness both to deal with or, if necessary, to deter North Korea.

Multilateralism Marches On . . . with U.S. Support*

No one will accuse the Bush administration of coming to power with the same level of unbridled enthusiasm for multilateralism that characterized the first few years of the Clinton administration.  But this does not imply that the current administration intends to turn its back on the multilateral process in Asia.  Just as Secretary Powell’s active participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum in July signaled a willingness to participate in multilateral security dialogue, so too did President Bush’s appearance in Shanghai signal serious administration interest in the multilateral economic process as well.   The administration also remains supportive of other multilateral initiatives, such as ASEAN Plus Three, which are helping to create a greater sense of cooperation among the Asian community of nations.

APEC Meeting in Shanghai.  Contrary to popular media reports, the White House was not focused exclusively on terrorism during the Shanghai APEC Ministerial and subsequent Leaders’ Meeting.   In fact, the Bush team made a concerted effort to breathe some life into this “gathering of economies.”  President Bush applauded APEC as an important vehicle “to achieve free and open trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region” and committed Washington to APEC’s revitalization through his economic team’s self-professed pivotal role in promulgating the 2001 APEC Shanghai Accord.  The White House “Fact Sheet on APEC’s Free Trade Goals” is, in fact, subtitled “The Shanghai Accord: U.S. Leadership in Achieving APEC’s Free Trade Goals.” The Fact Sheet further states, “to revitalize momentum toward APEC’s free trade goals and promote global growth, the United States proposed that APEC’s trade agenda culminate this year in the adoption of the Shanghai Accord,’” leaving no question about Washington’s active role in, and close association with, the preparation of the document.

The Bush administration is promoting a “Trade Policy for the New Economy” as part of the Shanghai Accord “that commits APEC economies to pursue trade policies on services, intellectual property, and tariffs that will encourage development of the New Economy.”  The White House APEC “Fact Sheet” also highlights Washington’s commitment to “capacity building,” i.e., “to reaching out to developing countries to ensure that they have the capacity to benefit from open markets,” a clear signal that it recognizes and wants to address the downside of globalization.  In short, the Bush administration appears intent not only on supporting, but also on broadening and deepening, the APEC vision.

The Shanghai Accord itself represents a modest step forward in regional multilateral economic cooperation.  While sprinkled with compromise language that clearly accommodates the more reluctant and resistant APEC members, the expectation for more tangible implementation measures is evident.  Of particular note, according to Pacific Forum Director for Programs Jane Skanderup, is the agreement to strengthen the peer review process of the Individual Action Plans (IAPs) and to complete a mid-term stocktake of overall progress toward the Bogor Goals in 2005.  The IAPs, established in 1996 at the Manila meeting, are supposed to be developed by each APEC member to outline liberalization schedules to achieve Bogor goals, and submitted voluntarily for peer review.  The Shanghai Accord tries to breathe new life to this process, with the goal of all 21 members completing and submitting their IAPs over the next three annual meetings.  Skanderup argues that, “for APEC, this is appropriately ambitious.”

In addition, the accord instructs trade ministers to identify concrete measures to implement the APEC Trade Facilitation Principles with the goal of reducing cross-border transaction costs by 5 percent by 2006.  Ministers are also instructed to exchange trade policy information on the status of liberalization of services and adherence to tariff and intellectual property regimes.  On this basis, the accord states, economies “may” develop targets by the 2002 ministerial meeting, a phrase obviously won by the pro-liberalization members.  The accord also asks ministers to make recommendations on broadening the Osaka Action Agenda, agreed to in 1995, to take into account new developments such as the e-APEC Strategy.  It will merit watching how these and other issues come to play as Mexico becomes the first Latin American APEC member to host the annual event, in Oct. 2002.

ASEAN Plus Three Meeting.  The fifth “10+3″ summit – which groups ASEAN with China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea – was held on Nov. 5 in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei.  Founded against the backdrop of the financial crisis that rocked the region in 1997-98, the group had agreed on a broad “East Asia Joint Statement” at its second meeting in Manila in 1999 which laid out eight areas of cooperation in the economic, social, political, and security fields.  Establishing the habit of dialogue appears the top priority, and themes this year ranged from terrorism to Mekong development to creation of a region-wide cultural or film festival. With just four years under its belt, the ASEAN Plus Three summits are still at an early stage.  As Jane Skanderup notes, “it should be expected that members will approach concrete agreements with caution.”  Only time will tell if this year’s agreement to establish an ASEAN Plus Three Secretariat will bring a new phase of institutionalization that really aids cooperative action.

“Plus Three” Meeting.  The “Plus Three” group of Japan, China, and the ROK also met for the third time on the sidelines of the broader meeting.  Ever so slowly, these three countries are broaching areas of economic cooperation long thought useless.  There is much work to be done, as much in building domestic consensus as in building cross-border relationships.  Yet progress is in the making: the finance ministers have established a regular meeting schedule, and this year the leaders agreed that economic and trade ministers will also regularly meet.  In 1999, the three leaders mandated on-going analysis and discussion among three designated policy institutes on the pros and cons of establishing a free trade area (FTA).  While a three-way FTA is a long way off, these joint analyses are producing practical recommendations to expand trade, investment, and business ties in the near term.

While earlier efforts at Asian-only multilateral economic cooperation drew veiled (and occasionally not so veiled) criticism from Washington, there has been little concern expressed about current ASEAN Plus Three or China-Korea-Japan cooperative efforts and none is expected.  These forms of sub-regional economic cooperation, if successful, can help promote broader regional economic cooperation and thus help move the APEC process forward.  When President Bush lays out his vision for Asia, he should carefully articulate the role he expects that organizations such as the ARF, APEC, and ASEAN Plus Three will play in complementing U.S. security strategy in Asia.

* [1]Pacific Forum Director for Programs Jane Skanderup made a major contribution to this section’s economic analysis.