Wide range of issues face Bush in Asia
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush left for East Asia on Saturday, where he plans to meet with China's heir-apparent, talk tough about North Korea's weapons programs and discuss economics in Japan during his three-nation Asian trip.
Bush's visit to the regional capitals of Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing initially was scheduled for October, but it was postponed because of the terrorist strikes on the United States.
The U.S.-China summit comes at a symbolic moment -- 30 years after the groundbreaking visit to China by former President Richard Nixon -- and a time when U.S. officials say Washington's prestige and influence in the region is at its highest point since the Vietnam era.
It also comes months in advance of the 16th Communist Party Conference, at which Chinese President Jiang Zemin is widely expected to be succeeded by the country's vice president, Hu Jintao.
A senior U.S. official involved in the trip planning said it was a "strong possibility" that Bush would meet with Hu in addition to his summit deliberations with Jiang.
A country-by-country look at the key issues from the U.S. perspective:
Economics will dominate the private discussions between Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Japan has record-high unemployment -- about 5.6 percent -- and U.S. officials believe one key to economic reform is for Japan to liquidate more than $1 trillion in bad loans now held by its banking system. U.S. manufacturers also have complained to the White House that the weak yen is hurting U.S. exports.
Senior U.S. officials say those issues are certain to come up in the discussions, although the public line of the administration is that the financial markets -- not political pressures -- should determine currency exchange rates.
And while unhappy with the state of the Japanese economy, another senior U.S. official familiar with U.S.-Japan policy said Koizumi's plans are superior to those of previous Japanese administrations. The official acknowledged the prime minister faces difficult political and cultural barriers as he tries to advance his agenda.
Bush also will salute Japan's unprecedented decision to supply naval vessels for refueling and other non-combat roles as part of the campaign against terrorism in and around Afghanistan.
Security issues will be paramount at this stop, with Bush's State of the Union reference to an "axis of evil" that includes North Korea the focal point. South Korean officials voiced concerns about Bush's strong language, but one senior U.S. official said they were "much more reassured now" after consultations with top U.S. officials about the president's intentions.
Another U.S. official said Washington and Seoul had nearly identical goals when it comes to North Korea, but the two governments take different approaches because of different perspectives. This official called it a "good cop-bad cop" approach in some cases.
But South Korea's ambassador to the United States, Yang Sung-Chul, said Bush's use of the term "axis of evil" had touched "sensitivities as well as sensibilities" in both the North and South. He said South Korea was a full supporter of the war against terrorism, but that it was Seoul's view than when it comes to dealing with North Korea that diplomacy was slowly bearing fruit.
"It is only four years, you know, and in four years we have remarkable accomplishments in easing tensions in the human context," Yang said. "We have to persist, endure and persevere, and we are ready to persevere."
He said he hoped the Bush visit "will create a better environment for engaging North Korea."
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has staked his legacy on his "Sunshine Policy" toward the North, hoping to set the two countries on a path toward reconciliation. Kim is barred from seeking a second five-year term; elections are in December, the transition to a new government next March.
One of the senior U.S. officials said it was his view that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il would not reciprocate and visit South Korea before Kim Dae-jung leaves office. Still, this U.S. official said the South Korean president hoped for progress on two fronts: family reunions and increased economic ties.
A few hundred families have been reunited, but thousands more in the South are still waiting for the North to allow further reunifications, and time is running short for many because of their advancing ages.
South Korea's Kim also wants to press ahead with more economic linkages, including opening more roads, rail lines and trade zones. But his northern counterpart has so far resisted, and U.S. analysts believe he is reluctant to open his country to further integration with the south.
Bush, for his part, will embrace the Sunshine Policy and the goal of reunification but also make clear, in his view, that it is time for Kim Jong Il to "make his choice," as one senior U.S. official put it.
The Clinton administration was on the verge of a deal with North Korea that was designed to curb its development and exporting of ballistic missiles and missile technology. But the deal was never completed, and the Bush administration rejected the framework on grounds it would have been impossible to verify under the terms negotiated by the Clinton team.
A senior official in the current administration also said it was the view of the Bush White House that a focus on just a missile deal was misguided.
This official said North Korea could comply with a missile deal but then "gin up a threat" by making provocative moves with conventional forces or by intensifying its pursuit of chemical or biological weapons.
Bush will stress that U.S. negotiators are prepared to resume talks with North Korea immediately. The U.S. official, however, said North Korea has been insisting that it be removed from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism before it will agree to talk.
"They want negotiation with us, but they don't want to pay for it," one U.S. official said -- meaning in the view of the United States, North Korea was unwilling to take specific steps that might lead to a more open society or tight restrictions on weapons programs.
The official said North Korea also is balking at the terms of a previously negotiated deal under which it was to receive a light-water nuclear reactor as part of a commitment to halt its nuclear weapons program. North Korea agreed to International Atomic Energy Administration inspections as part of the agreement, but is now resisting, the official said.
Bush often talks of how he views September 11 as a turning point in U.S.-Russian relations, and he embarks on this summit hoping the same will be true when it comes to relations with China.
There are major sources of tension in the relationship. Bush will publicly and privately raise concerns over human rights and religious freedom, military proliferation, and Taiwan. But he will also praise China's decision to press ahead with entrance into the World Trade Organization and thank President Jiang for sharing intelligence and other cooperation in the ongoing war on terrorism.
Much like the Clinton administration, the Bush team is banking on trade as an engine of both economic and social progress. One senior U.S. official said negotiating the details of trade with China as a WTO member on a sector-by-sector basis will be "a messy process, a fight all the way" and a "nasty process," especially when it comes to the agricultural sector. But the U.S. official said the tough negotiations were worth it not only for access to the Chinese market but because "it locks their leadership into the concept of economic reform -- there is no going back now ... and it forces the pace of change."
As for Hu, the heir apparent, U.S. officials concede "we don't know that much about him," and say Bush is eager to hold a meeting.
U.S. officials see a China motivated by a desire for a smooth leadership transition and more global interaction and prestige tied to its WTO entry and the coming 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Even recent statements about Taiwan have been muted, and Chinese officials have not directly raised with their U.S. counterparts at any major level the recently disclosed allegation that a presidential jet ordered by Jiang from the Boeing Corporation was bugged.
"The president is encouraged by what he sees as evidence that there can be what he believes is in the best interests of both nations: a candid, cooperative, constructive relationship with China," a U.S. official involved in China policy said.
In January, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on two Chinese companies it said were supplying Iran with materials for weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. officials said one Bush summit goal will be to press Beijing to fully implement a November 2000 bilateral agreement designed to curb weapons proliferation.
U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is a sore spot from Beijing's perspective: In his last decision on the issue, Bush left open the possibility that Washington could sell Taipei warships equipped with the Aegis advanced air-defense system if China continues its military buildup across the Taiwan Straits.
The senior U.S. official said Bush will stress his reliance on the so-called "one China" policy, but also will make clear future U.S. decisions about arms sales to Taiwan will be based on "a simple calculation" -- whether the threat from China has increased in the view of U.S. officials.
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