KONGFew in Asia expect President-elect George W. Bush's team of Dick
Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to make significant foreign policy
changes. Washington has permanent interests, not permanent friends.
Nor is it realistic to expect a new
cohesion. A plural and democratic global power cannot have a fully coordinated
foreign policy. Interests, obligations and sympathies are too divergent and
often in conflict.
The Bush administration also may face an
additional problem: If there is a U.S. recession, trade tensions with East Asia,
and China in particular, could overshadow the most carefully crafted diplomacy.
The plus side for Asian governments
should be less lecturing by Washington than has been the case with Madeleine
Albright and, to a lesser degree, Al Gore and Bill Clinton. General Powell gives
the impression of being an Eisenhower-style coalition-builder. Ms. Albright has
been a forceful but sometimes stridently ideological exponent of her view of the
U.S. world role.
There is some concern, however, that
because of their past experience the main administration players will not give
Asia the attention it feels it merits. General Powell and Mr. Cheney may want to
capitalize on Gulf War relationships to see if Washington can occupy a more
effective role in the Middle East than Mr. Clinton, for all his efforts, has
been able to play. Ms. Rice may want to give more focus to European and Western
China will always be on a Bush radar
screen, but other Asian questions may seem remote. Mr. Cheney has talked of a
new consistency in dealings with China. This is needed, but difficult to achieve
given the tussle between commercial, diplomatic and strategic interests.
The key Northeast Asian questions
coalesce around theater missile defense. Though still more a phrase than a
reality, missile defense is at least symbolic of a U.S. determination to
maintain a two track China policy, developing economic and social links with the
mainland while helping Taiwan to protect itself.
The missile defense question will also
help define the future U.S. relationship with Japan.
Economic problems and a domestic
political vacuum have caused Japan to be sidelined. Many in Washington appear to
believe that its influence is in permanent decline. But the strengthening of
U.S.-Japan defense cooperation has been a quiet achievement of the second
Japan's own defense posture and future
need, if any, for strategic weapons will be set in response to the United
With or without rapprochement in Korea,
few believe that missile defense is primarily to deal with threats from
missile-owning rogue states like North Korea. Indeed, the new administration
will need to address whether Washington's preoccupation with missile sales has
handed too many bargaining counters to Beijing, Pyongyang and Moscow, while
holding up normalization of relations with Iran and doing nothing to reduce
weapons competition on the subcontinent.
General Powell inherits improved
relations with a more outward-looking India. But the United States faces a
difficult choice in dealing with a near bankrupt Pakistan. Should it be punished
for its military coup, for fomenting violence in Kashmir and for backing for the
Afghan drug trade and the Taleban? Or might that risk its descent to the ranks
of failed states? Policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan also has a bearing on that
toward Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and to Russia, Iran and the Central Asian
In Southeast Asia, Washington faces
several messy situations, headed by that in Indonesia. There are trade and
investment relationships to nurture but these countries do not carry major
medium-term strategic implications. Nor is there much that the United States can
do now anyway except act benignly and hope that the region avoids fragmentation,
endemic economic crisis or enhanced religious conflict.
The era of lecturing the region about
economic reform and political democratization may be over. The United States
faces debt problems of its own and while democracy has proved useful in some
countries, it has been no panacea for national ills.