A US winning streak in Asia

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2007, 12:00am

It's a relief to see the Bush administration on a bit of a positive roll in Asia. The recent six-party talks denuclearisation accord out of Beijing is potentially a giant leap for mankind, not to mention for the Korean people. Better late than never, yes: but we'll take it.

What's more, US President George W. Bush is defending the accord unapologetically. Do you see, Mr President, how much easier it is to defend a really good foreign policy than a really bad one?

It brought a smile to the faces of a lot of people around the world to see the president rebuffing the rhetorical gunfire of neoconservatives like former UN ambassador John Bolton. Having all but ruined the first six years of his presidency by listening all too attentively to these policy psychotics, Mr Bush should move to salvage what little is left of his legacy by continuing to listen to neoconservative advice but, for once, doing precisely the opposite - a winning formula if there ever was one.

In this spirit, the Asian region in particular offers some big-time opportunities for the president to start getting things right and to leave the world a half-decent inheritance. Two moves come quickly to mind.

The first is to appoint a special US envoy for Sri Lanka. The place is a mess and it's fast sliding into hell. Ethnic Tamils as well as ethnic Sinhalese, the dominant majority, are dying by the day. Though the former are mainly civilians and the latter soldiers, both sides will wind up on the losing side if this keeps up. The ceasefire negotiated by a concerned international team, led by Norway, is in tatters.

To quell the turmoil in this island state off the coast of India, now might be the time to try to send in a top-level American plenipotentiary. Some three dozen concerned congressmen sent a letter to Mr Bush recently, pointing out that more than 200,000 Sri Lankans have been uprooted from their homes by the fighting between the two ethnic groups, and thousands have died, in the past year alone: 'The citizens of Sri Lanka have endured violence and civil war for too long,' it said. 'We request that you appoint a special envoy to help bring peace to the country.'

The US Senate, too, appears to be preparing a letter. Armed with letters from both houses, Mr Bush will want to move forward with a special appointment. It's true that the ruling - and well-armed - government in Colombo is not thrilled by the prospect, but opposition to a well-intentioned and carefully conceived American intervention would be a colossal folly.

While Mr Bush is looking for bright ideas to help Asia, he should also consider institutionalising a new approach to US relations with Seoul. Now one of the dozen strongest economies in the world, South Korea is also becoming an ever-more important regional ally. But, with its growing economic and diplomatic ties to Beijing, it is not an ally that should or can be taken for granted.

To this end, Mr Bush needs to start a new ambassadorial appointment tradition - in effect, to 'Tokyo-ise' it. Over the decades, Washington has placed major political figures as ambassadors to Tokyo, from eminent Senator Mike Mansfield to Senator and White House chief of staff Howard Baker, and many others. The intended - and indeed largely realised - effect was to put a thick layer of showy icing on the cake of US-Japan relations.

Such icing now needs to be layered onto relations with the South Koreans. More than ever, they are vital to US security and regional stability. South Korea's positive role in the six-party talks was essential to progress. In New York, former South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki-moon heads the United Nations, and the South Korean economy continues to cook like few others in the world.

Anti-Americanism is hardly new to South Korea. Many people will resent the US even when it isn't making major policy blunders; still, relations with Seoul need to be elevated to the status of second to none. Mr Bush could do that with another timely special diplomatic appointment and, in effect, add to his positive streak in Asia.

Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre