Bush’s visit to Asia dogged by US disaster in Iraq

President Bush’s first trip abroad following the Republican Party defeat in the US mid-term elections has been anything but a success. He failed to stamp his administration’s agenda on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam or achieve any significant breakthrough on key issues such as Iran and North Korea.

Prior to his departure, the US media indicated that Bush would seek assistance, in particular from Russia and China, to impose sanctions on Iran and fully implement the punitive measures in the recent UN resolution on North Korea. He returned home, however, empty-handed. With the White House confronting a disaster in Iraq, compounded by the extensive antiwar opposition revealed in the US poll, Moscow and Beijing were not about to offer a free helping hand.

The APEC summit’s venue, Hanoi, only served to underscore the US administration’s crisis over Iraq. Bush was unable to avoid uncomfortable comparisons between the current US war in the Middle East and its defeat in Vietnam three decades ago. Asked by reporters if the Vietnam War held any lessons for Iraq, Bush declared that Iraq was going to “take a while”. Rather inanely, he added that the lesson was “we’ll succeed unless we quit,” insisting that the US would stay “to get the job done”.

The remarks beg the obvious question: why didn’t the US “stay to get the job done” in Vietnam? The quagmire in Iraq bears strong parallels with the inability of a massive US force of more than half a million troops, backed by overwhelming firepower, to crush the resistance of the Vietnamese people. The conscription of American youth for the war in Vietnam provoked a mass movement in the US against what was a criminal, neo-colonial war. Bush could not of course address any of these issues.

As well as attending the APEC summit, Bush briefly stopped over in Russia and Singapore on the way to Vietnam, and in Indonesia before returning to the US. The discussions in Moscow were not an auspicious beginning. Bush finalised a long-discussed agreement with President Vladimir Putin to allow Russia into the World Trade Organization (WTO) but received no obvious quid pro quo. Putin gave no indication that he would end Russia’s opposition to imposing UN sanctions on Iran.

In Singapore, a close US ally, Bush delivered a speech at the National University aimed at setting the stage for his appearance in Hanoi. The audience was hand-picked to make sure there would be no protests. Most university students did not even know about the lecture as Bush was whisked into and out of the country under heavy security.

Bush’s message for APEC leaders was that his administration intends to focus greater attention on Asia to ensure that the US remains the dominant power in the region. “We hear voices calling for us to retreat from the world and close our doors to these opportunities,” he told the Singapore audience. “These are the old temptations of isolationism and protectionism, and America must reject them.”

He pointedly called for greater international pressure on North Korea. “For the sake of peace, it is vital that the nations of this region send a message to North Korea that the proliferation of nuclear technology to hostile regimes or terrorist networks will not be tolerated,” Bush declared.

In Hanoi, however, Bush’s appeal received little positive response. Chinese president Hu Jintao agreed to work with the US to press North Korea in return for multilateral talks, but offered no concrete timetable. South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun refused to support the US plan to intercept and search North Korean ships suspected of carrying nuclear materials. Washington’s closest allies—Japan and Australia—offered support. But the top priority of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in Hanoi was to meet Chinese president Hu, not Bush, to mend Sino-Japanese relations.

Despite Bush’s efforts, North Korea was clearly not a priority. The concluding joint APEC declaration failed to mention North Korea. The 21 member states had only agreed to a separate brief statement expressing “strong concern” about North Korea’s missile tests in July and nuclear explosion in October. It merely reaffirmed a call for the “full implementation” of two UN resolutions on North Korea. Vietnamese president Nguyen Minh Triet only read the joint statement after reporters asked what had been decided on North Korea.

US decline on display

Bush no doubt would have liked to be centre stage in Hanoi to bolster his administration’s fortunes at home and abroad. But that was not to be. As Murdoch’s Australian noted, it was President Hu, rather than Bush, who was the main focus of attention.

“The Chinese leader arrived several days before the summit for a flower-strewn schedule of smiles and ribbon-cutting intended to show Asians that Beijing, not Washington, is now the capital that counts,” the newspaper reported. A Chinese diplomat explained that Hu’s trip had been prepared months in advance to encompass a dozen economic agreements with Vietnam, promises to resolve border disputes and an agreement to share offshore exploration of oil and gas.

“By contrast, Mr. Bush’s Vietnam schedule was abruptly cut back after the US election defeat,” the Australian commented. “Heavily protected by thousands of elite troops and police, his few public engagements have been tightly controlled.” Associated Press noted that Bush’s motorcade was welcomed much less enthusiastically than that of former US president Bill Clinton in 2000. “A few people waved, but most merely watched impassively. Weary of war, many here deeply disapprove of the US-led invasion of Iraq.”

Prior to the trip, the US-based thinktank Stratfor raised concerns about the impact of the Iraq war on Washington’s global position. “The Cold War paradigm of global blocs has been swept away, and the post-Cold War sense of supreme and unchallengeable US global hegemony has been shattered ... And when Washington once again has the need and ability to focus its attention there [in East Asia], US leaders may find themselves on unfamiliar ground.”

In an article entitled, “Uncle Sam no longer big in Asia,” the British-based Guardian also commented on waning US influence in Asia. “Escape from the States or not, Mr. Bush’s attendance in Hanoi is necessitated by ongoing efforts to maintain US influence in a region increasingly dominated by China.... Next month the Philippines will host the latest East Asia summit, a new Beijing-backed group that excludes Washington.”

On the economic front, Bush fared no better. He made a concerted appeal to restart the stalled Doha round of WTO trade talks, but achieved little more than broad general agreement. The final joint declaration recorded that APEC members had agreed to move “beyond our current positions”. No one was optimistic, however. The statement also noted that APEC had decided on a fall-back position if the Doha round failed—the rather problematic formation of a free trade zone in the Asia-Pacific region.

Even in securing US investment in Vietnam, Bush suffered a setback before he arrived. The US House of Representatives rejected a bill granting permanent normal trade status to Vietnam, reflecting fears in Congress about a further expansion of the huge US trade deficit. While the legislation is likely to be passed eventually, Bush was clearly hampered in the economic wheeling and dealing in Vietnam, which is rapidly emerging as a major cheap labour platform.

A CEO summit involving 1,200 international business executives was held on the sidelines of the APEC summit. Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, receiving $5.8 billion in foreign investment last year—just behind China, India and Singapore.

US corporations signed $1.68 billion in energy and infrastructure deals with the Vietnamese government. Japanese prime minister Abe brought a delegation of business leaders and unveiled plans to invest $718 million in Vietnam over the next few years. Russian president Putin opened a new Russian-Vietnamese Bank in Hanoi. Australian prime minister John Howard inaugurated a $105 million steel plant in Ho Chi Minh City.

Bush and his wife attended a church service in Hanoi and made an appeal for greater religious freedom in Vietnam, but few people took any notice. Like all the other leaders at the APEC, the US president and his entourage are well aware that the Stalinist police state in Hanoi, like its counterpart in Beijing, serves the needs of international capital very well by suppressing any opposition by workers.

On the last leg of his trip to Indonesia, thousands of antiwar protesters staged demonstrations for days prior to Bush’s arrival. The regime in Jakarta mobilised more than 20,000 police to ensure the US president’s security during his six-hour stopover. Despite the heavy police presence, several thousand people marched in Bogor denouncing Bush as a “war criminal” and “terrorist” and demanding the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, a recent US State Department survey found that only 30 percent of Indonesians now have a favourable view of the US, compared to 75 percent in 2000.

Bush was flown by helicopter from Jakarta airport to a specially prepared pad in the grounds of the summer palace in Bogor. Even behind the palace walls, however, Bush could not escape questions about the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq during a press conference. When Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was asked if he had urged Bush to begin pulling out of Iraq, the US president stepped in to preempt the answer, saying “I’ll be glad to answer it for him—no, no he didn’t.”

After a breakfast with US troops in Hawaii on Tuesday, Bush flew back to Washington, ending a trip overshadowed at every step by the deepening crisis in Iraq.