Bush Cautiously Backs Pacific Rim Free Trade

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

SINGAPORE, Nov. 16 -- President Bush reassured Pacific Rim leaders Thursday that the United States stands squarely behind efforts to liberalize trade with the region, and he promised to continue pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

On the eve of an economic summit in Vietnam, Bush voiced tentative support for a free-trade agreement covering all 21 member states of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, saying during a speech here that the idea deserves "serious consideration."

In addition, the president again warned North Korea that the United States would consider it a "grave threat" and would hold North Korea responsible if it transfers nuclear bomb technology to another country or to a terrorist organization. He said North Korea should take "concrete steps" to end its nuclear program, and he called on other Asian countries to send the same message to Pyongyang.

North Korea agreed last month to resume talks with five other nations on ending its nuclear weapons program, just three weeks after conducting its first nuclear weapons test. Diplomats hope talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States will take place by the end of the year, but no date has been fixed.

In comments to reporters at the APEC meeting in Hanoi, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there was deep skepticism among the group's members that North Korea actually intended to abandon its nuclear weapons. [Bush landed in Hanoi on Friday morning, the Associated Press reported.]

Asked if she would favor delaying talks until she was certain North Korea would take steps to show its commitment, Rice said: "I don't think it makes sense for us to have talks unless we think that it's going to be fruitful. It certainly doesn't make sense just to go back to talk."

In his speech at the National University of Singapore, Bush also called on North Korea to take demonstrable action to show it is willing to end its weapons program. "Pyongyang must show it's serious . . . by taking concrete steps to implement its agreement to give up its nuclear weapons and weapons program," he said.

Bush added that if North Korea did so, the United States and other nations involved in the six-party talks would provide it with economic help, security assurances and other benefits.

Bush's visit to Southeast Asia comes on the heels of elections in which Democrats won majorities in both chambers of Congress, an outcome widely seen as a repudiation of the president's leadership.

Some analysts have said many nations in Southeast Asia, which have a generally warm view of Bush, see the United States as a pillar of stability in a region where Communist-run China is the dominant force.

With Bush weakened politically, they say, many leaders in this economically booming region doubt his power to deliver on his trade liberalization and other promises.

Bush suffered a disappointment this week when the House of Representatives failed to approve a measure to establish permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam. Bush had expressed hope that Congress would approve the measure before his trip to Hanoi, but House leaders now say they will not try again to pass the bill until next month.

Passage of the bill is needed for U.S. firms to take advantage of the low tariffs Vietnam will enact as a result of its recent membership in the World Trade Organization, and its failure to pass was viewed as a disappointment by the Vietnamese government.

In his address previewing issues he plans to emphasize during his week-long trip, Bush said the United States is serious about helping the region meet the challenges that could undermine its recent record of explosive economic growth. He cited efforts to develop alternative energy sources, fight pandemic diseases such as AIDS and avian flu, and combat terrorism.

Pointing out that the United States does more trade across the Pacific Ocean than across the Atlantic, Bush said he wants his administration to remain deeply involved in the region.

Before his speech, the president met with Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. Accompanied by his wife, Laura, he also visited the Asian Civilizations Museum, where the two listened to a performance of Asian fusion music.

Bush briefly tried his hand at the saron, an instrument similar to a xylophone, tapping out a passable rhythm with a rubber mallet.

The president is scheduled to stay three nights in Vietnam, then visit Indonesia and Honolulu before returning to Washington on Tuesday.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.

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