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U.S. Lack of Asia Policy Unlikely to Change

By Richard Halloran

It has been the autumn of American discontent -- discontent with President Bush, discontent with corruption in Washington, discontent with the war in Iraq. (Apologies to William Shakespeare for adapting a line from his play, "Richard III.")

That discontent erupted last week as the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans, narrowly captured the Senate, and saw Robert Gates, a former director of Central Intelligence who once described himself as "the ultimate insider" in Washington, nominated to replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Beyond electoral politics, the nation is split on immigration, same-sex marriage, abortion, tax policy and an array of other issues. Just before the election, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center noted a "vast divide" between Republican and Democratic voters who "see the world quite differently."

Consequently, U.S. foreign policy and security posture, especially that in Asia, is in jeopardy. It was once said that American politics stopped at the water's edge and the nation showed a united face to the rest of the world. That is no longer so, despite reassuring words after the election from Bush and the Democratic leaders who will take office in January.

The prospect is for endless wrangling over the past and wide disagreement over how to extricate the U.S. from Iraq. Much of that contention can be expected to capture headlines when the nomination of Gates goes before the Senate for hearings and a vote.

Gates, who like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice holds a Ph.D. in Russian history, has shown no particular interest in or knowledge of Asia. In a memoir, he revealed that the Chinese had disclosed to him and other senior Americans their plan to attack Vietnam in 1979, but that he had missed the point.

Bush will have an opportunity this week to take the initiative on Asia policy and perhaps even get ahead of his political opponents when he goes to Hanoi to take part in the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. There, and in later stops in Singapore and Jakarta, the president could set out a new vision for America's role in Asia. But don't count on it.

The most immediate problem is on the Korean Peninsula, where the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, has promised to resume negotiations over his nuclear program. The so-called Six Party Talks include, besides his government, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the U.S.

Kim, who has a long history of brash interventions in his negotiating record, may believe that a weakened American president will give him an added advantage in what are already expected to be hard-nosed negotiations. Watch for him to ask for something that in no way would Bush be prepared to give.

Longer range, Southeast Asia has become another cauldron for terror.

Governments there have begun to mobilize against the terrorists, and Bush can be expected to give them encouraging pep talks during his trip this week. But look for terrorists, who watch political developments in the U.S. with a keen eye, to seek to take advantage of what they see as a weakened presidency.

Most important, the long-term issue of U.S. policy toward China, the power of Asia, has become more complicated by the day, partly because the Bush administration seems to lack a strategy for dealing with Beijing. Beijing can read election returns, even if most officials there don't understand American democracy, and can see a wounded president who can be exploited.

Chinese officials have suggested to Americans that they are becoming increasingly impatient with their rivals in Taiwan, which seems to be drifting toward independence in defiance of Beijing's claim to sovereignty over the island.

The Chinese have further suggested that the U.S. should be more "cooperative" on the Taiwan issue in return for China's help in reining in North Korea. The Chinese particularly object to American pressures on Taiwan to buy a large arms package from the U.S.

Still more: The Bush administration has expressed displeasure, sometimes in public but more forcefully in private, over some of the political pronouncements of Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, who is in deep political trouble because of charges of corruption.

Yet if the U.S. even hints that Washington might abandon Taipei, the loss of credibility would ripple across Asia with consequences that would be unpredictable except that the U.S. influence would decline as Chinese dominance would rise.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at oranhall@hawaii.rr.com

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