Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 17:03 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 17:03 | SYDNEY

Bush blots his fine Asia record


Andrew Shearer

16 October 2008 08:26

For all the fashionable criticism of George Bush’s foreign policy, he has managed relations with China well at a challenging time, putting in place an effective conceptual and practical framework (Zoellick’s ‘responsible stakeholder’ and the accompanying myriad of bilateral dialogues), and managing tensions over Taiwan, trade and human rights.

Key to this achievement has been Washington’s success in revitalising its traditional alliances in Asia (particularly with Japan and Australia) and bringing into play potential new strategic partners: the historic breakthrough with India is the most significant here, but US relations with Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam have also made significant gains under Bush. The key principle underpinning this approach has been that getting China right means getting Asia right first – a subtle and sophisticated strategy sometimes wrongly caricatured as containment.

That’s why it is so unfortunate that the administration has blotted its Asia record in the home straight by capitulating to Pyongyang’s crude but proven extortion tactics — burning America’s most important ally in Asia and giving up one of its few remaining levers over North Korean behaviour in the process.

Malcolm Cook is right. In a fractious region that places more weight on security and US extended deterrence than it does on notions of ‘moral authority’, the US move – coming when it does in the US political cycle and against the backdrop of more North Korean bluster – creates an impression of weakness rather than the flexibility that comes with strength. North Korea retains is nuclear weapons and knows all it has to do is to begin the same old escalatory cycle to get the next thing it wants. No one places much confidence in whatever verification regime Chris Hill has negotiated (we still don’t know the details). And the DPRK has the satisfaction of knowing that if it plays its cards right it can split Washington off from its most important regional allies.

Kim Jong Il probably can’t believe his luck, and the lesson won’t be lost on Tehran (or other capitals considering acquiring nuclear weapons capability). Beijing will be quietly satisfied at another win-win outcome. As for Japan, its strategic anxiety will be further exacerbated – with all the negative longer-term consequences that potentially flow from that. It’s not the abductees that are the main issue here – although Washington has shown a lack of sympathy for the domestic political sensitivity of that issue in Japan. Rather, it is the scant regard paid to Tokyo’s serious and legitimate security concerns by its ally. Other US allies and potential allies may be given pause for thought.