President Bush's week-long swing through six Asian nations is long overdue. Despite being home to half the world's population and the globe's most dynamic economies, Asia has received scant attention from this administration. Unfortunately the president has only one subject on his agenda -- the war on terrorism. The president is touching lightly, if at all, on the other issues that matter most to this region -- economic globalization, China's growing presence, and political instability fed by economic disparities. This is not surprising. The Bush administration doesn't seem to think much about global economic issues. And when it does speak, as it has recently on the issue of currency manipulation by China and Japan, the administration's policy is confusing and contradictory. In Asia, the single-minded focus on terrorism leaves an opening for others -- China first of all -- who are more in tune with the region's concerns. "I've never seen a time when the U.S. has been so distracted and China has been so focused,'' Ernest Bower, the head of the U.S. business council for Southeast Asia, told a business magazine.
Regional economic bloc
Faced with multiple challenges, the countries of Southeast Asia have accelerated plans to create a regional economic bloc like the European Union. The Chinese, followed closely by India and Japan, are embracing the idea, proposing the creation of a vast East Asian free trade area that would encompass nearly 2 billion people, but notably not include the United States. When national security adviser Condoleezza Rice briefed reporters on the president's trip, the focus was almost entirely on security issues. Bush's itinerary is designed to highlight the nations working closely with the United States to combat Al-Qaida-linked Islamist terror groups in Southeast Asia -- Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. Or to reward those who are backing the war in Iraq -- Japan and Australia. Even at the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok, Bush plans to `"stress the need to put security at the heart of APEC's mission because prosperity and security are inseparable,'' Rice said. No one can argue with that basic proposition. The example she cited was the terrorist bombing a year ago in Bali, Indonesia, which shut down tourism, a vital source of income for Indonesians. But let's not look at that link through the wrong end of the telescope. We need to grapple with the poverty and income inequality in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-populated nation, which feeds growing Islamic radicalism.
China drives growth
East Asia has largely emerged from the financial crisis that swept through this region in 1997-98 and sent countries such as Indonesia into economic collapse. Economic growth should pick up to almost 6 percent next year, the World Bank has predicted. But much of this is driven by China's rapid growth, which is in turn sparking a sharp rise in trade within the region, much of it between countries in the region and China. These countries look warily on this rising giant. China is sucking away foreign investment from places like Silicon Valley that used to flow to them, and with it, jobs. At the same time, progress toward a global free market that ensures fair competition has stalled. The world trade talks in Cancun last month collapsed in rancor, and the United States seems content now to pursue its own bilateral trade deals with favored countries such as Singapore and Australia.
This has encouraged the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations to accelerate plans to create a European Union-style economic community. The Chinese sent a huge, high-powered delegation led by their premier to their recent meeting, signed a friendship treaty with the group and pledged to negotiate a free-trade zone with the group. "The Chinese are moving in in a big way,'' says Stanford University expert Donald K. Emmerson. Where is the United States in all this? "We're outside, and our businesses are going to be outside,'' says Brookings Institution global economic expert Lael Brainard. "The Bush administration needs to get a handle on this.'' If it doesn't, the United States will wake up one day from its infatuation with unilateralism and return to Asia to find that the furniture has been rearranged and the locks have been changed.