President George W. Bush travels to Asia this week to participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Summit in Busan, South Korea. His attendance at APEC and his visits to Japan, China, and Mongolia are an important statement of U.S. foreign policy priorities and goals in the Asia-Pacific region. At a time when U.S. and global attention appears to be focused on other regions, this trip sends a strong signal that Asia still remains a center of gravity of American interests.
While some regard the annual meeting of APEC as a summit of greater symbolic than practical significance, APEC's 21 member economies represent more than one-third of the world's population, sixty percent of the world's gross domestic product, and nearly half of global trade. Thus, strong statements from the APEC forum can have a major impact. For example, a top priority for APEC has been liberalizing trade, and this year's agenda will support the conclusion of the World Trade Organization's (WTO) Doha Development Agenda in Hong Kong next month. Beyond the traditional economic and trade issues that have been the traditional purview of APEC, other priorities this year are likely to be strengthening cooperation and support for the ongoing war on terrorism and prevention of an avian flu pandemic.
The APEC meeting also affords President Bush important opportunities for focused bilateral meetings with key leaders to discuss specific concerns. In particular, his meetings with the leaders of South Korea and Japan, two of America's strongest and most important allies in Asia, will be critical to overcome existing tensions and forge stronger ties for the future.
President Bush's first stop in Asia before heading to Busan will be Kyoto, where he will meet Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Over the last several years, Washington and Tokyo have made great strides in strengthening their bilateral security relationship and increasing cooperation and dialogue. As the two countries continue to work towards even closer collaboration, several issues will have to be addressed.
The first challenge is moving forward to implement a plan, struck at the end of last month, to begin moving U.S. marines from Okinawa to Guam in 2008. The plan includes moving 7,000 marines to Guam and 1,000 elsewhere to Japan, but Washington has warned that it will not move forward unless Tokyo moves ahead with a plan to relocate Futenma, a key military airbase currently located on Okinawa.
On the economic front, Bush will urge Japan to follow through on the independent Japanese Food Safety Commission's recommendation to resume imports of American beef, which Tokyo has banned since December 2003 for fear of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) contamination. In addition, while there will be praise and recognition of Koizumi's recent political victory on postal reforms, President Bush should encourage further deregulation of the financial and commercial sectors and obtain a commitment from Koizumi to work more vigorously to eliminate trade barriers and thus improve market access for American firms.
After Kyoto, Bush will proceed to Gyungju, South Korea, for a summit with President Roh Moo Hyun just prior to the APEC leaders' meeting. The two leaders will discuss bilateral cooperation in several economic and security areas. Among these will likely be developing a free trade agreement between the two countries, adding South Korea to the U.S. Visa Waiver program, and boosting bilateral investment and trade.
On the security front, a number of issues will prove to be more contentious and will require a united stance from the two leaders. At the top of the agenda are North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. The last round of talks with North Korea failed to end the current impasse, and President Bush should use this opportunity to explain to the South Korean leader and people why the United States remains firmly committed to complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement. This goal undeniably furthers the interests of both countries and should be shared by Koreans and Americans alike.
Another security issue that has caused some tension in recent months is the future of the U.S.-Korea alliance, which has been strong for the past half-century. With rapid changes on the Korean peninsula, in the region, and in the global security environment, the alliance will have to transform to accommodate new dynamics in the bilateral relationship. President Bush should set the tone for the future of the alliance by expressing America's commitment to the relationship and the defense of South Korea and state clearly that the two countries must work together to improve mutual trust and confidence. The transformation of the alliance, including adjustments of the U.S. troop presence and command organizational changes, will require further negotiation and discussion but can be achieved to the satisfaction of both countries through strong leadership.
Improving Ties in Asia
The APEC summit, which brings together the leaders of all the major economies in the Asia-Pacific, is a unique opportunity for the United States to both participate and play a leading role in the region. One of the most important leadership roles Washington can play is to strengthen the ties between America's two vital allies, Korea and Japan.
Tensions between Seoul and Tokyo in recent months-due to several issues, including unresolved historical disputes-should not belie the fact that ties between the two countries have never been stronger or more positive. Japanese interest in Korean popular culture has sparked record high tourism and cultural exchange. With President Roh and Prime Minister Koizumi scheduled to meet during APEC, the United States should strongly encourage the two leaders to overcome their disagreements and focus on shared values and interests.
With issues such as the ongoing North Korean nuclear problem, terrorism, and avian flu, close regional cooperation has never been more imperative. It is in the best interests of the United States to promote better relations between Tokyo and Seoul. Japan and South Korea today are two of the most modern and democratic countries in Asia. The United States should work closely with these two allies to advance their relationship to meet modern challenges. The APEC summit is an excellent opportunity for the United States to send a strong message to Asia and beyond that the region is critical to America and its long-term interests.
Balbina Y. Hwang, Ph.D., is Policy Analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.