Sunday, February 11, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 11, 2001

Bush era offers hope for Asia-Pacific

By John Griffin
Former editor of The Advertiser's editorial pages

Americans, and those in Hawaii in particular, should hope that the Bush administration brings a new, better balanced U.S. interest to Asia and Pacific relations.

The Clinton team, with its emphasis on Europe and the Middle East, was a disappointment to those who think Asia deserves at least equal time. Sporadic attention, crisis reaction and international trade emphasis were Clinton-era hallmarks in the Pacific.

Yes, economics, and especially globalization, are key issues. But in Clinton’s case, trade needed to be better balanced with other aspects of foreign relations.

Why should we think the Bush people could produce a better Asia-Pacific record?

In recent years — Republican administrations — notably that of Californian Ronald Reagan, have seemed more Pacific-minded, if not always with great results.

Even the elder George Bush, a one-time U.S. envoy to China, had his moments, aside from throwing up on a Japanese prime minister. On the smaller scale, those included meeting here with Pacific Island leaders, a summit "first"; and ordering Kahoolawe’s cleanup and return to state jurisdiction.

We’ve all noted how former White House security aide Jim Kelly of Hawaii is in line to be assistant secretary of state for Asia-Pacific matters. Other old Asia hands will be in good spots to bring up regional concerns in Washington.

But that still leaves the question of how inexperienced George W. Bush and his top foreign policy people, who previously leaned toward Europe and the Middle East, will come down on regional priorities now. First trips by Bush’s top guns are toward Europe. And Latin America may be the new president’s favorite developing region.

In any event, the new president is facing not only a different Asia and Pacific than his father knew, the area is still evolving in positive and dangerous ways, as spelled out by regional experts here and elsewhere.

So a few basic points important for everyone to keep in mind:

The Cold War is over and Marxism is going out of style. But communist political systems still run China, North Korea and Vietnam. The first two have been developing missile systems that could rocket nuclear bombs to parts of the United States — most notably Hawaii.

President Bush campaigned for super-costly missile defense systems to guard against this possibility and others. Some day such systems may be part of many nations’ defenses. Still, for now it looks like an ill-timed idea for reasons of expense, unproven technology, fears of triggering a larger Chinese arms buildup and opposition from allies as well as rivals.

The best hope is that Bush will quietly put the idea aside pending tests and more diplomacy to preserve peace. But don’t count on it.

Northeast Asia — where the interests of China, Japan, two Koreas, Russia and the United States intersect — remains the Pacific’s most demanding and delicate region. Along with the missile issue, it’s the administration’s most immediate challenge out this way.

Ambitious and would-be-capitalist China remains poised between suspicion of America, a need for U.S. markets and concern Bush will reverse Clinton strategy and cozy up more to Japan. China’s emotional desire to regain Taiwan remains a flashpoint in need of a confederacy-style compromise in the Hong Kong mode.

Japan, politically crippled and still struggling to regain economic momentum, remains the world’s second economy and major force in Asia. A problem for Bush is not to alienate China as he re-engages a Japan too much ignored under Clinton.

In Korea the need now is to keep helping the peace process sparked under South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

This must be balanced with continuing concern about the military might and intentions of the communist North.

The United States still has more than 100,000 troops in Northeast Asia, most in South Korea. While they will stay for more years, the policy goal has to be working toward situations that allow their removal. We shouldn’t garrison Asia forever.

Southeast Asia, with troubled governments and still-struggling economies, calls for more American attention. Under Clinton we have been seen as too aloof and preoccupied. Anti-Americanism is a factor in some countries, notably in Indonesia and Malaysia, where militant Islam has been growing.

Reports note a mix of Chinese diplomatic and economic activity in Southeast Asia. That calls for American skills beyond military might.

A factor is Chinese and American wooing of Vietnam, a nation that has had to fight, fear and accommodate China for more than a thousand years.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populous nation, sitting astride vital trade routes for Mideast oil and other needed commodities, could break apart, implode or muddle along as a cripple. None of those would be in our interest.

In the equally troubled Philippines, it’s good news that another corrupt ruler was ousted, albeit in a way that gives "People Power" a dubious new dimension. But the social and economic system needs deeper reforms. New President Arroyo has better credentials than Cory Aquino had following deposed President Marcos, but she will need to push fundamental changes after restoring stability — assuming she can.

South Asia is vast and different from East Asia. It too often gets even shorter shrift from Americans. Differences between democratic India and dictator-prone Pakistan, which have caused several wars, could now bring Asia its first homegrown nuclear conflict. That would echo around the world.

The 10,000 Pacific Islands between Hawaii and Asia often get lost from view because of their small size and low population — almost 8 million people (half the number of Tokyo or Jakarta), with three-quarters of them in far away Melanesia.

But political troubles in Fiji, the Solomons and New Guinea have spurred talk of an "arc of crisis" that by some definitions could include Indonesia. In turn, such instability contributes to other problems.

Like the Caribbean, some Pacific Islands have developed a set of world-class problems. Those include serving as transshipment centers for drug and illegal immigrant smuggling by organized crime elements, and money laundering for corrupt Russians and others. Local corruption grows in this climate.

This sometimes involves Hawaii. One other reason we should care is that thousands of Pacific Islanders have been moving here. But the most important reason is that Hawaii itself is part of the Pacific. These are fellow islands that need help.

Asia is preoccupied with economics and making money. That fact is probably more important than all else, even if it can be foolish to ignore the links to politics and security.

Countries are restructuring, with varying degrees of success, after the late 1990s financial crisis. But the recovery is uneven and may depend too much on America’s fading economic boom. More reforms are needed in key countries, including Japan.

Globalization is still the name of the game, complete with growing e-commerce, wireless technology and fears of enlarging the rich-poor gap. At the same time, experts note trends to bilateral trade deals instead of the expected growth of multinational organizations. Like the World Trade Organization, APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) seems to need adjustments.

A new generation is rising in Asia, their version of our X and Y young people.

As in the United States, they sometimes clash with older people and traditions, and they care less about politics than economic matters. But the new vitality is impressive, and some predict a new-century chemistry where the economic freedoms and technology will spur more political liberty.

That capitalism-spurs-democracy equation is not automatic, as we have seen in the past. But the important point for people in Hawaii and elsewhere in America is that economic change and a different mix of old and new generations may add up to new opportunities in Asia — and here.

Keep thinking it: Hawaii is part of this Asia-Pacific region.

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