Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on October 29, 2008

Oct 24, 2008

by Zhiqun Zhu

John Hay, the 37th United States secretary of state, said in 1889, “The Mediterranean is the ocean of the past, the Atlantic, the ocean of the present, and the Pacific, the ocean of the future.”

The future is now. The “Asia-Pacific century” is not a prediction any more; it’s reality. Based on purchasing power parity, three of the four largest economies in the world are in Asia – China, Japan and India. And if the United States is included, then all the top four economies are in the Asia-Pacific region.

The United States has longstanding interests in Asia. Two of the world’s potentially most explosive places are located in East Asia: the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait, where the United States has significant economic, geopolitical and strategic interests. Since the end of World War II, the US has had extensive economic interactions with Asian nations. It played an instrumental role in Japan’s post-war recovery and the economic takeoff of the four Asian “tigers” – South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. Since the early 1980s, China has also benefited enormously from America’s huge investment and its insatiable consumer market. It is not an exaggeration that East Asia is of critical importance to America’s future.

One wonders whether the fact that Asia has not been a major foreign policy issue in the 2008 US presidential election is good news or bad news. The new US president must move beyond President George W Bush’s preoccupation with the “war on terror” and pay more attention to Asia.

Mixed legacy

On the positive side, US alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia remain strong. In the past eight years, Japan, South Korea and Australia all had leadership changes, and in Japan’s case there have been four different prime ministers. All these Asian leaders have firmly supported America’s “war on terror”. They have all visited Washington to show solidarity with Bush.

One of the rare bright spots in Bush’s foreign policy is China. A stable and strong relationship between the United States and China is probably Bush’s greatest foreign policy achievement. Bush and his family are now considered “friends” by the Chinese government and Bush’s decision to attend the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, though controversial at home, was welcomed by China where members of the Bush family were warmly received.

Prodded by the United States, the new Kuomintang (KMT) government in Taiwan headed by Ma Ying-jeou has abandoned the pro-independence policies of his predecessor Chen Shui-bian and has endeavored to improve cross-strait relations. As a result, military conflict in the Taiwan Strait is becoming much less likely now.

However, Bush has also failed miserably in East Asia overall, most notably with regard to the unresolved issue of North Korea’s nuclear program. Opportunities to denuclearize North Korea have come and gone during the eight years of the Bush administration.

An agreed framework was reached between the US and North Korea in 1994. Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula seemed to be within reach. President Bill Clinton sent his secretary of state Madeline Albright to North Korea in October 2000 to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il directly. Clinton was even prepared to visit North Korea himself to improve relations.

After Bush came to office in January 2001, he refused to honor the 1994 agreement and rejected direct talks with North Korea directly. After the September 11, 2001, bombings he labeled North Korea as part of the “axis of evil”. North Korea was outraged and felt cornered; it hardened its position on the nuclear issue and decided to proceed with nuclear technology. Even many South Koreans felt offended: North Korea is poor, but it is not evil.

Eventually China launched the six-party talks in 2003. The US accepted this multilateral forum for discussion but still refused to deal with North Korea directly. After tough negotiations, North Korea finally agreed, in February 2007, to shut down its main nuclear reactor in exchange for food and aid from the other five parties.

In June 2008, North Korea blew up the cooling tower of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and handed over to the US a declaration of its nuclear activities. However, by August, the US had not removed North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list, as it had promised earlier, while insisting that it wanted independent verification of North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. Accusing the US of breaking its promise, North Korea then announced it had suspended disabling its nuclear facilities.

In a dramatic development, on October 11, Bush decided to remove North Korea from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. This was an encouraging step, but it may have come too late.

As a result of Bush’s policies, the new US president will face several serious challenges in East Asia.

The immediate security challenge is a nuclear-capable North Korea. Recent reports about Kim Jong-il’s poor health added complexity and uncertainty to the nuclear issue and security in East Asia.

For Washington, the shortest diplomatic route to Pyongyang is through Beijing. China has a strong interest in preventing the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, in part because it does not want to give Japan an excuse to go nuclear.

North Korea has not accounted for dozens of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, and the new US president needs to explain to Tokyo that as important as the matter is, it should not be linked to North Korea’s denuclearization. Japan can seek to resolve the abduction issue through other channels, preferably by engaging with North Korea directly. The United States must coordinate its policy closely with China and other nations in the region in order to break North Korea’s nuclear stalemate.

Asia also poses tough economic challenges to the new president. The US must become actively involved in economic integration with Asian nations, otherwise it risks being marginalized in Asia. It cannot afford to continue to stand on the sidelines as the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and northeast Asian nations discus a regional free-trade zone.

The United States had been the dominant economic power in Asia, but now China has become the largest trading partner of almost every country in Asia. Economically, the US is already playing second fiddle. Asian economies are some of the biggest holders of US Treasury bonds with Japan and China together holding about half of all Treasury bonds sold abroad.

China has become America’s third-largest export market after Canada and Mexico, and its foreign exchange reserve is quickly approaching US$2 trillion. The recent financial crisis in the US makes it imperative for the new president to work more closely with East Asian nations. Shortly after the US Congress passed the $700 billion financial rescue package in September, the People’s Bank of China (central bank) reportedly expressed interest in purchasing $200 billion worth of US Treasury bonds. Undoubtedly, East Asia will be part of the solution to the current financial problems in America.

The biggest challenge for the US and its new president is China. The challenge from the re-emerging power of the Middle Kingdom is on all fronts. China’s economy continues to gallop forward, despite the impact of the financial crisis in the West. For many developing countries, China’s development model, the so-called “Beijing Consensus” of economic liberalization under tight political control, offers an attractive alternative to the “Washington Consensus” of the US.

After Beijing passed the Olympic test with flying colors, and after Chinese astronauts successfully conducted their first space walk, the Chinese people have every reason to celebrate. As a result, nationalism has grown even stronger in China. Dealing with this increasingly powerful and proud nation of over 1.3 billion people is no easy task – and China-US relations have become increasingly complex.

From issues ranging from trade imbalances to independence protests in Tibet, the two countries have many differences. The recent US sale of $6.5 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan certainly does not bode well for bilateral ties. The rise of China – a nation that does not share core values with the United States – will be the most pressing foreign policy challenge for the next American president.

Bush has preferred unilateralism in foreign policy, and in Asia he has preferred strong bilateral alliances built upon historical ties with key allies. But this bilateral alliance structure is rooted in Cold War ideology and is outdated today. The new American president must go beyond unilateralism and bilateralism and move towards multilateralism on a wide range of issues.

In Asia, the new American president must be a uniter, not a divider. In addition to resolving North Korea’s nuclear dilemma, fighting infectious diseases, piracy on the high seas, global warming, and financial crises all require multilateral cooperation between the United States and the nations of Asia and the world.

Zhiqun Zhu, PhD, is MacArthur Chair in East Asian Politics and associate professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at

(Copyright 2008 Zhiqun Zhu.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.





  1. […] SPEAKING FREELY – FORGET BUSH’S WARS AND WORK WITH ASIA Oct 24, 2008 by Zhiqun Zhu John Hay, the 37th United States secretary of state, said in 1889, “The Mediterranean is the ocean of the past, the Atlantic, the ocean of the present, and the Pacific, the ocean of the future.” The future is now. The […]

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