Bush Has Chance to Buoy Asia Ties

In traveling to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit of regional leaders in Shanghai this week, President George W. Bush will be seeking to expand and strengthen the international coalition war against terrorism.

While the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan is just a month old, the gathering of leaders from APEC’s 21 member states presents Bush’s campaign with some of his most promising opportunities and daunting challenges.

The centerpiece of this year’s APEC meetings will be a jointly issued declaration that condemns international terrorism. While negotiation over the document has not been easy, such a show of solidarity among APEC’s diverse members is particularly important—especially as the predominantly Muslim nations of Indonesia and Malaysia are ambivalent at best about the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan. To counter this, Bush should encourage the leaders of Malaysia and Indonesia to draw on the united stand expressed at the APEC meeting as a way to counter radical elements at home.

He also will have the opportunity to firm up bilateral relations with key regional actors, most notably Russia and China. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s impressive display of support for the United States since Sept. 11 offers a credible basis for further trust-building measures, including greater military to military contacts and intelligence sharing.

Today’s scheduled meeting between Bush and China’s president Jiang Zemin, their first, also provides an opportunity to put U.S.-China relations back on solid footing after plunging to new lows earlier this year.

While bilateral relations had already begun to stabilize before Sept. 11, the anti-terror platform has given the two nations a salient framework for cooperation: China voted for the U.S.-sponsored United Nations resolution condemning terrorism, gave Pakistan both moral and financial support as Washington sought its cooperation, and has temporarily set aside concerns over a U.S. military presence near its western border.

Jiang’s eagerness to showcase Shanghai, China’s most prosperous and cosmopolitan city, also will underscore the importance of economic relations between the two nations.

Bush, who last visited China in the 1970s, will undoubtedly be impressed as never in history has a nation liberalized its economy so quickly and made such rapid gains in increasing its share of total world trade. Bush can also applaud the concessions China made to join the World Trade Organization, which will ensure that its path of economic liberalization will continue to move ahead.

In his drive to build an international anti-terror coalition, however, Bush also risks tacitly acquiescing to China’s and Russia’s desire to justify their own brutal suppression of independence movements among ethnic minorities within their borders. China’s state-run media have been particularly audacious in their attempts to label independence movements in its northwestern province of Xinjiang, Tibet and even Taiwan as “terrorist.”

Bush should resist these efforts by drawing clear moral distinctions between terrorism and the struggle for self-rule by peoples of historically autonomous regions.

Terrorists commit violent acts against innocent civilians for the purpose of creating a state of widespread fear, and increasingly export this terror abroad to broaden their cause. People who peacefully advocate different governing arrangements—such as in Tibet and Taiwan—are not terrorists. Bush should clearly set out this distinction to Chinese leaders.

He should also impress upon Jiang the importance of stepping up efforts to cut off weapons proliferation to states that sponsor terrorism. For years, China has tried to ride the fence between adapting to international norms, on one hand, and courting such states as Iran and Iraq, on the other. Its reasons for the latter are motivated in part by a desire to offset America’s global dominance, and in part by fear that radicals in the Mideast will export their Islamic extremism to China’s restive Muslim minorities.

Yet the events of Sept. 11 illustrate with crystal clarity the dangers of flirting with states that provide haven for terrorists, even indirectly. Nor should China feel complacent in its position. Any assurances Beijing may have received from officials in Baghdad or Tehran will be of little use if terrorists decide to support the cause of their Islamic brothers in Xinjiang. According to China’s own internal reports, thousands of independence activists from Xinjiang have received terrorism training in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Finally, Bush should be prepared to show other APEC countries that he is willing to work with other nations, not merely give orders. Much of other countries’ reluctance to throw their weight fully behind the United States in fighting terrorism comes from the widespread perception that Washington has lost interest in working through multilateral channels to obtain its objectives, preferring instead to go it alone.

Bush could earn back a good deal of confidence—and make practical gains in the anti-terror coalition building effort—by genuinely seeking cooperative and sustained partnerships with governments in the Asia Pacific region.