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Experts Urge Washington Not to Ignore Asia

As the United States and other countries around the Pacific Ocean prepare for a 21-nation summit later this week in Chile, experts on the region are urging President Bush not to ignore Asia, as he moves into his second term.

The Bush administration has several pressing issues overseas that will demand immediate attention. Two of the most urgent ones are in the Middle East, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But speakers at a recent conference in Washington, sponsored by the non-partisan U.S. Asia Pacific Council, urged the United States not to overlook Asia.

Bennett Johnston, a former U.S. senator who is now president of a Washington-based governmental relations firm, said the region poses some of the greatest challenges to American diplomacy.

"Asia Pacific is the area of greatest danger and greatest opportunity for the United States," he said. "The situation in [North] Korea, with a paranoid, reckless regime, possessing, we believe, nuclear weapons, poses a threat that is many times greater than Iraq poses to this country."

South Korea's ambassador to the United States, Han Sung Joo, told the conference his country is not alone in opposing a nuclear North Korea.

"I don't think that's the plan on the part of the United States, Japan, South Korea, and I don't think that's the plan that China has in mind, either," he noted. "One way or another, we are determined to deal with that issue."

The United States, China, South Korea and Japan are four of the countries participating in talks with North Korea, along with Russia, to try to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye said, more than a decade ago, the Central Intelligence Agency had already estimated that North Korea could produce one or two nuclear weapons. In 2002, North Korea broke-off a 1994 agreement with the United States, and said it was re-starting its plutonium re-processing operations. Experts say Pyongyang may now be able to make at least six nuclear weapons.

"When you have only one or two, you're not likely to trade one away, or sell it to a terrorist. As the number starts to rise, that becomes more of a danger," he said.

At the same time, Professor Nye said, U.S. relations with major Asian powers are relatively good, especially when compared to Washington's ties with continental Europe.

In Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi openly supported President Bush's re-election, and Tokyo has more than 500 so-called Self Defense Force troops in Iraq supporting the U.S.-led coalition. Professor Nye says China has gone from being labeled a strategic competitor in the 2000 election to becoming a major U.S. partner.

"[Former Chinese President] Jiang Zemin got invited to the [Bush] ranch at Crawford," he noted. "Also, note that China was not mentioned in the [2004] American campaign in any serious way. Hallelujah. That means things are going alright."

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, much of Washington's foreign policy focus has been on combating global terrorism.

Muthiah Alagappa, director of the East-West Center's Washington office, warns that viewing Asia solely with regard to the global war on terror is too narrow a view.

"It's an important issue, but it's not the only issue, and viewing it only through that lens does a dis-service," he said. "I'm not alleging that this administration does that, but it does receive high priority. I think that one has to look at Asia through inter-state competition, forging common worldview among the major powers, growing economic inter-dependence, proliferation of Asian regional institutions. All of these must be taken into account in formulating a policy towards Asia."

Not taking a comprehensive view of Asia could have negative consequences for the United States, according to Sandra Kristoff, former Clinton administration National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs.

"That consequence will be that the major powers and the relationships among the players in Asia are going to continue to evolve, that countries in Asia have economic, political issues, concerns, that they will continue to address," she said. "And they will do that with a perception that our interest in the region has weakened, that our role in the region is no longer indispensable."

Already, there are signs of weakening American stature in Southeast Asia, says Jusuf Wanandi, from Jakarta's Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said, although Washington has good relations with Southeast Asian governments, people in countries like Indonesia currently have a relatively low public opinion of the United States.

"The problem is that the trend is no good," said Mr. Wanadi.

Without sustained attention from Washington, Harvard Professor Joseph Nye says he believes a rather rosy picture of overall U.S.-Asia relations could turn dark very quickly.