U.S. President George W. Bush is on his way to Korea for a visit before heading to Bangkok and Beijing. Bush’s visit, somewhat delayed due to a slight case of overzealous fury at the idea of importing U.S. beef or more accurately an opposition attempting to prove its continued significance), comes at a time when the (soon to be) outgoing U.S. president is looking to set the course of events for his successor (be it McCain or Obama). This means that his stop in seoul isn't just a farewell tour or a reciprocal greeting to ROK President Lee Myung Bak’s visit to Washington, but instead is part of a revived attempt to set the terms of the future U.S. role in East Asia. Now, this may be a bit grandiose explanation, and certainly Bush won’t (and doesn’t expect to) accomplish everything in this brief visit to three Asian cities, but it is part of the underlying architecture of his final six months in office.
In Asia, Bush is looking to re-engage the United States. At the start of the Bush administration, the number one foreign policy issue was neither Iraq nor Iran and certainly not Afghanistan. It wasn’t even in the Middle East. Things there were as messy as normal, and little more or less so. Bush’s core focus was not on the Middle East, but on China. When he came to office, it was at a time when there was a growing fear of “China rise,” the emergence of China as not only an economic power, but one with a rising military power and political ambition. One of Bush’s first foreign policy issues was the E-P3 incident, when the aptly named Wong Wei got a little over confident and smacked into the nose of the U.S. surveillance (spy) aircraft, sending himself to the depths and the crew and plane full of Elint equipment to a Chinese military airfield on Hainan Island.
But as Bush was getting ready to check the rise of China and ensure Beijing didn’t try to take the place of Moscow as the rival to Washington, a loose end from the Cold War contest with the Soviet Union suddenly rose up, and the Bush administration’s attention was turned almost exclusively toward al Qaeda, drawing the United States, through a sometimes complex series of events and reasonings, back into the Middle East with a vengeance, where it remains largely focused today. The Bush administration is trying to wrap up the Middle East and Afghanistan - or at least set things on such a course that the succeeding president has little initial room to maneuver on policy - and now there is the chance to re-set sights on CHina and East Asia.
East Asia wasn’t really ignored during Bush’s two terms in office, but it certainly didn’t take center stage in policy initiatives. Perhaps the two most significant elements of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia over the past eight years have been the evolution of the U.S. security triangle with Australia and Japan, and the U.S. engagement strategy with China (some might say something about North Korean policy, but in many ways this has been a subset of China policy). With the former, Washington expanded the military and political commitment of its key regional allies to play a much more pro-active role regionally, not necessarily on behest of Washington (as the early days of the Downer “deputy sheriff” policies appeared) but at least in a complimentary direction. With the latter, Washington managed to play China slowly, rather than confrontationally, and via coercion and compliments get China to pursue some economic and political policies it may not have been entirely comfortable with otherwise.
The current trip begins to roll in the next steps. In Korea, Bush will seek to smooth over some of the bumps in ROK-US relations from the Roh administration and from the transition to the Lee regime. The beef protests, with their anti-American tone, were barely about beef or the United States, but instead were about the now opposition (formerly ruling) and the labor unions attempting to rebuild their relevance. Anti-U.S. sentiments are simply a convenient tool, but Washington took a much more conciliatory tone than usual in both this and the recent reversal of Dok-do naming conventions in order to give a bit of a boost to Lee and let Lee claim at home that he can shape Washington (as opposed to Roh constantly trying and running against a brick wall).
The future U.S. Asia policy envisions Korea taking a role, but not a critical one. At the same time, it is important not to let Korea feel isolated, and therefore prone to slide closer to China. What Bush will reassure his Korean counterpart is that the United States sees Korea as a potential global player (play to the ego of the small nation), and will ensure Korea doesn’t end up once again squished between a rising China and a rising Japan (play to the insecurities of the small nation). This gives Korea the sense of control of its destiny on one hand and a bit of insurance on the other.
The more significant visit than Korea is Thailand. Here Bush is looking to stage the re-involvement of the United States among the ASEAN nations. over the past five or six years, China has taken a much less imposing position with ASEAN, instead using smiles and friendly gestures to gain greater influence and leverage among the South East Asian grouping. Left nearly abandoned after the Asian Economic Crisis by the United States (with the exception of criticizing policies, supporting the independence of East Timor, launching counter-terrorism operations in the Philippines and occasionally badmouthing Myanmar), ASEAN has looked to others for economic and political support. The preference, aside from the United States, was Japan, but Tokyo remained pre-occupied with malaise for much of the time, and then, under Koizumi, focused on internal social and perceptional change, so Japan wasn’t forthcoming in playing the greater role ASEAN subtly offered.
So in came China, playing friendly rather than threatening, offering economic cooperation rather than domination, and generally filling a void that SEAN saw needing filled. Bush’s visit to Thailand will be part of trying to address and reverse that trend. Over the next several months, look for increased economic and military interaction between the United States and the ASEAN nations. Look for the U.S. to step up its criticism of Myanmar and seek to shift ASEAN from its non-interference policies to a more activist role (something China doesn’t want to see). And look for a slow but steady increase in subtle and not-so-subtle anti-China rhetoric from the United States, though not necessarily from Bush himself.
Bush is leaving soon, but he wants to reshape America’s role in East Asia, and doesn’t have time. Thus he will push various buttons and pull various levers in an attempt to steer U.S. interaction and policy in the region on a course that won’t be readily changed by the next administration. The era of Asia on the sidelines of U.S. foreign policy may be ending soon.