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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 24, 2003

U.S. foreign policy raises concern in Southeast Asia

By Ralph A. Cossa

HANOI, Vietnam — "Once the Bush administration is done attacking North Korea, will Vietnam be next?" This seemed to be the burning question in the back of many people's minds as I visited Vietnam for a series of lectures on U.S. foreign policy.

Peasants on the sidewalk of one of Ho Chi Minh City's busiest streets protested Vietnam's forced-relocation policies and corruption in August 2000. The government's tolerance of the protest surprised many.

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While I came to talk about the proliferation of North Korean weapons of mass destruction, my primary concern quickly became the proliferation of Chinese motorcycles; nearly everyone under the age of 30 — and many considerably older — appeared to have traded in their bicycles since my previous visit, less than two years before. Although this made crossing the street much more challenging, it was a welcome sign of increased prosperity, as were the numerous small enterprises that had popped up along virtually every main thoroughfare in Vietnam's capital city.

By Vietnam's account, readily confirmed by the U.S. Embassy, U.S.-Vietnam relations were good and getting better by the day. Sure, there were still disagreements — including continued American concern over human-rights issues — but when one of the most contentious issues revolved around catfish, things seemed to be generally on track. That's why I found the "Are we next?" question particularly disturbing, on at least three levels.

First was the assumption that the United States is intent on pursuing — indeed, might actually prefer — a military solution to the Korean crisis; this accusation was made repeatedly during my visit.

Second was the belief that the Bush administration had a list of countries targeted for regime change. And third was the fear that Vietnam, or any other country that failed to embrace American-style democracy, would be on this list despite the upward trend in relations.

"If we are still not a democracy within five to 10 years," one journalist said, "would America still tolerate us?" The barely veiled belief that Washington might hold a grudge and plan one day to "get even" for the Vietnam War also was implied in several conversations, most distressingly among some too young to have experienced the war.

In my presentations, I stressed the logic behind a multilateral approach in dealing with Pyongyang and President Bush's oft-stated desire for a peaceful, diplomatic solution. But actions speak louder than words, my Vietnamese interlocutors politely argued, citing Iraq as "proof" while bringing up Undersecretary of State John Bolton's harsh words on his recent Asian visit as further evidence that North Korean regime change is Washington's primary objective, and the use of force the preferred option.

Bolton's remarks in Seoul were, in fact, relatively measured — for him. He even noted: "There is still hope that Kim Jong Il may change course." But Bolton mentioned the North Korean leader by name no fewer than 41 times (a fact his representatives were eager to point out), underscoring the personal nature of his attack against a leader whom North Koreans are compelled to revere. This has led many to conclude he was attempting to undermine the Six-Party Talks (involving North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia) even before they were scheduled.

As Vietnamese increasingly surf the World Wide Web — Internet Cafes are springing up all over Hanoi — new evidence emerges daily of Washington's desire for regime change (in North Korea, Iran, Syria and elsewhere), especially when one fails to distinguish between official government statements and comments made by politicians, editorial writers, unofficial advisers and even visiting academics.

In the case of North Korea, Washington's rejection of a bilateral nonaggression pact adds to this perception. While I believe many good reasons exist for not going down such a path, the Bush administration needs to make its case more effectively.

Concerns about American "unilateralism" and "arrogance" are not restricted to Vietnam. In multinational meetings in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in the past two weeks, it has been a recurring theme. When evidence of U.S. support for multilateral initiatives is pointed out, it is either dismissed as insincere or described as "unilateral multilateralism": The United States may be inviting others to board the train — indeed, may demand they do so (under the "you're either with us or against us" doctrine) — but only Washington gets to steer.

Clearly, the Bush administration has a growing image problem in Southeast Asia. Rightly or wrongly, Washington is increasingly seen as unwilling to listen or take the interests or concerns of others into account as it pursues its America-first policies. True or not, this perception persists, is growing and forms the basis of policy responses as well as public attitudes.

A Singaporean colleague summed it up best: "Please tell Washington that we want and need America's help in fighting terrorism and providing regional stability, but we want to feel that Washington is listening as well as talking, and is taking our domestic security concerns into account. In the process of defending your homeland, please don't neglect or jeopardize ours."

Message delivered. Is anyone in Washington listening?

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS (pacforum@hawaii.rr.com), a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and senior editor of Comparative Connections, a quarterly electronic journal (www.csis.org/pacfor).