Bush's Three Tough Towns

The President faces difficult talks in Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo

He's the warrior President: the man who threw down the gauntlet against terrorists and the "axis of evil"--rogue states secretly manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. George W. Bush is also the man everyone is counting on to do something about the worldwide recession. After all, the U.S. needs allies that are prosperous enough to carry out roles in Washington's global security game plan.

These topics--terror and the global economy--will head the agenda for Bush as he makes a swing through Asia starting Feb. 17 to Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing. In each country, Bush has focused messages, sometimes harsh ones, to deliver. One irony is that the U.S. delegation's friendliest reception may be from the Chinese--who, a year ago, with a U.S. spy plane captured and its crew on the ground in China, were being held up as the greatest threat to global security. Bush's visits to allies South Korea and Japan, by contrast, could be fraught with tension. That shift in mood marks just how much the world has changed in the past 12 months. Here's how each leg of the trip is likely to play out:

-- Beijing. Bush's meetings with President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji on Feb. 21-22 will be the last and easiest leg of the trip. The Bush team wants to thank the Chinese for supporting the U.S. war on terror and not moving to block American military moves in Central Asia, close to the Chinese border. Neither country wants radical Islamic movements to spread. "Now both sides see more common ground," says a senior Chinese government official. That doesn't mean China won't keep criticizing. Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said that Bush's singling out of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an evil trio was "not conducive to world and regional peace."

For his part, Bush will keep pressing the Chinese to stop selling weapons technology to rogue states. Says a senior Administration official: "We have to make clear to them [that] we watch what they do." The U.S. just sanctioned two Chi- nese companies for selling Iran products that can be used in chemical weapons.

The Taiwan question hasn't gone away, of course. The Chinese will lecture the U.S. on selling Taipei high-tech weaponry. The U.S. will stand firm. "The good news is there's only one problem that's at all serious," says Michael Mandelbaum, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The bad news is it's insoluble."

-- Seoul. Bush's decision to name North Korea as one of three top troublemakers in his State of the Union speech didn't sit well with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who has staked his presidency on a dramatic opening to Pyongyang. "The key word with North Korea is `dialogue,"' said South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung Hong on Feb. 5, a week after Bush's remarks. It will be a tricky meeting. The Americans will tell Kim that they, too, want an opening with the regime of Kim Jong Il--but that they think South Korea has gone soft on the issue. Washington is waiting for some indication that Pyongyang is willing to stop selling missile technology, cut its conventional forces, or allow inspections of its nuclear facilities. The U.S. goal is to pressure the North to return to the negotiating table.

-- Tokyo. Bush's dealings with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will be the toughest part of his trip. Koizumi's credentials as a reformist are in tatters, and Japan's economy is sinking deeper into recession and financial distress. Worse, Bush's staff is divided on just what to do to end the Japan crisis. Economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey prefers quiet pressure on Tokyo and backs a weak yen, which helps Japan's hard-pressed exporters. But Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill opposes efforts to drive down the yen unless they are linked to broader reforms. "Beggar-thy-neighbor policies don't work," says an Administration official who sides with O'Neill. The betting is that Bush will urge the Japanese privately to clean up the bad bank debt fast and stop relying on a weak yen to bail out the economy. If reform continues to stall, though, Washington could go public with its complaints down the road.

Bush also sees Japan's crisis as a security issue. Although the U.S. considers Japan a key ally in Asia, Bush will tell Koizumi that Japan can never ramp up its armed forces--something Koizumi also wants--until Japan starts growing again. The U.S. is concerned about Japan's economy "because of the role that Japan seeks to play as a security partner for the U.S.," says R. Glenn Hubbard, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers. If Japan fails in that role, then archrival China can throw its weight around--and Bush will have plenty of new problems to deal with the next time he visits the region.

By Stan Crock and Rich Miller in Washington, with Moon Ihlwan in Seoul and Dexter Roberts in Beijing

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