Southeast Asia Trip to Test Bush's Stature

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

President Bush leaves tonight for a week-long visit to Southeast Asia that may offer an early indication of how the political "thumping" he took a week ago will affect his standing on the world stage.

Bush leaves Washington for a series of summits and an economic conference in Vietnam one week after elections in which Democrats won control of both houses of Congress, in what was widely interpreted as an expression of voter unhappiness over the Iraq war.

But just as Iraq poses a long-term challenge for the U.S. policymakers, so, too, do the forces shaping Southeast Asia, a region of booming economies that has its own festering pockets of terrorism. The area also is important to solving another major item on the U.S. foreign policy agenda: the long-standing problem of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Bush's visit to Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia is intended to focus heavily on trade issues, global health concerns such as AIDS and avian flu, as well as the North Korea question. But just as important may be how Bush is perceived by the other leaders at the meeting in the aftermath of his recent political setback.

Our "Asian friends will be watching initially President Bush and his team in terms of his body language, his statements to see whether he will be weakened or committed to going forward with a broad and purposeful agenda in Asia as a whole," said Kurt Campbell, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

One thing Asian leaders will be watching for is whether Bush can still deliver on trade-liberalization legislation, given his weakened political state and the populist opposition to many free-trade agreements, according to some analysts.

The Bush administration is pressing Congress to pass a bill granting Vietnam permanent normal trade relations before the president arrives in Hanoi on Friday, a step that is needed for U.S. firms to take advantage of the low tariffs that nation will enact as a newly minted member of the World Trade Organization.

Vietnam, which boasts the fastest-growing economy in Asia, is also one of the world's fastest-growing markets for U.S. goods.

But the House failed to pass the legislation last night. The vote of 228 to 161 in favor of the bill fell short of the two-thirds majority required by a procedure that limited debate.

Republicans planned to bring up the measure again tomorrow under normal procedures, requiring only a majority for passage, House aides said. The Senate is expected to take up the issue later in the week.

Passing the legislation ahead of the meeting "would be useful for President Bush," said Grant Aldonas, a former undersecretary of commerce for international trade in the Bush administration. "It would be useful, certainly, for the United States to ensure that our trading partners in Asia know that we're prepared to be at the table -- both Congress and the president -- and contributing to an aggressive trade policy."

Yesterday, the United States removed Vietnam from its list of nations that do not allow religious freedom, citing what it called Vietnam's greater tolerance for religious expression.


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