Bush to Asia: Freedom Is More Than Markets

Increased power: China's economy is burgeoning -- as is its military strength.
Increased power: China's economy is burgeoning -- as is its military strength. (Consumers Carrying Shopping Bags In Beijing This Month/by Jason Lee -- Reuters)
By Dan Blumenthal and Tom Donnelly
Sunday, November 27, 2005

Obscured by the unblinking spotlight on Iraq, the most significant strategic development of President Bush's second term is occurring in the shadows. If it can overcome the well-entrenched yet outdated policies of the past, the Bush Doctrine may be coming to East Asia, and the mere possibility is making foreign policy realists run the way the citizens of celluloid Tokyo used to run from Godzilla or the giant winged Mothra.

The president's just-concluded Asian trip bore signs that his devotion to democracy is beginning to shape American strategy beyond the "greater Middle East," calling into question the policy of economic engagement and the belief in the democratizing power of free trade that Washington has followed up until now. And military preparations are underway to give substance to the rhetoric of liberty.

By the very act of making Japan the first stop on his tour, Bush combined political symbolism with strategic intent. His speech in the ancient capital of Kyoto was perhaps the most important event of the entire trip. First, it asserted that the principles of individual liberty and natural political rights are universal. "In the 21st century, freedom is the destiny of every man, woman, and child from New Zealand to the Korean peninsula," he said. The implication of his words was obvious: If the principles of liberty can so deeply embed themselves in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Mongolia, then why can't the same happen in China?

Second, the speech defined Japan as a mature democracy that has set an example for Asia and is ready to play a more active role in the world. "A free Japan has helped transform the lives of others in the region," Bush said. Significantly, Bush found the measure of Tokyo's new role in its involvement in Iraq, where it has not only contributed money but also provided forces to a humanitarian mission in Muthanna province.

If the president was speaking most directly to the Japanese, he was also speaking to other U.S. allies in the region, again stressing the binding force of common political principles. The most significant of these other allies was Taiwan. It's been a long time since this administration has had much nice to say about Taiwan, ever since 2001, when the newly elected Bush promised to do "whatever it takes" to defend the island against Chinese aggression. Indeed, Bush's critiques of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian have contributed to political paralysis in Taipei. But in the Kyoto speech, Taiwan was held up as an example of a "free and democratic Chinese society" -- a model for the mainland.

The president returned to these themes of democracy and freedom at the conclusion of his trip, in Mongolia. Speaking in the capital city of Ulan Bator, Bush embraced the Central Asia republic as an ally: "Mongolia has made the transition from communism to freedom, and in just 15 years, you've established a vibrant democracy and opened up your economy. You're an example of success for this region and for the world. . . . The American people stand with you."

All this would just be high-flying rhetoric were it not for the fact that the Bush administration is coupling it with a realignment of U.S. forces in Asia and in the western Pacific. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been something of a reluctant warrior in the Middle East, but he and his lieutenants in charge of Asia are deeply engaged in the transformation of U.S. posture along China's periphery.

The rhetoric and the realignment have alarmed some traditional Asian hands, who have invested decades in a policy of engagement. A recent New York Times editorial reflected the concern, fretting that the "Bush administration has been going out of its way to build up its military ties with countries surrounding China." Leaving aside the editorial's assertion that the "two most troubling" examples of Bush's alliance-building are the region's two most powerful democracies -- Japan and India -- what is the alternative? Would the engagement crowd favor a unilateral approach to counterbalancing China's power? Does anyone really mean we should move out of the way and let authoritarian China become the dominant power in Asia?

Many foreign policy realists and Asia hands take China's view that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is worrisomely nationalistic. But in Bush's view, Koizumi is a longtime ally with "common values, common interests, and a common commitment to freedom," as he said in his Kyoto speech. These are the same words Bush used this past July in a summit with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which Bush's critics also faulted. Never mind the potential for a broad strategic partnership, the critics said, India is not committed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Yes, but like Japan, India is more likely part of the solution in Asia, rather than the problem.

A reshaping of the U.S. defense relationship with Japan has been in the works for more than a decade. The United States will reposition its forces and base a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in a Japanese port when the non-nuclear USS Kitty Hawk is retired from active service. The United States and Japan will also work together more closely on common security concerns.

This new combination of Bush Doctrine rhetoric and military reposturing represents more than a hedge against the traditional American approach to the region, particularly when it comes to dealing with Beijing. The shopworn "One China" policy endures, preventing the recognition of self-governing Taiwan as an independent country while fudging our position on Beijing's claims to the island. The president's rather mechanical recitation of this liturgy at Kyoto suggested how outdated and uninspiring that formulation is.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company