Bush flees country, hoping to leave troubles behind

Beset by tribulations at home and just off a troubled trip to Latin America, President Bush hit the road again Monday — and his political challenges didn’t get any easier.

As part of a four-nation swing through Asia, Bush will make the third trip of his presidency to China, and there he’ll confront a growing undercurrent of anxiety in the U.S.-Sino relationship.

“The trends in the U.S.-China relationship have negative implications for our long-term national economic and security interests,” concluded a report issued last week by the U.S.-China Commission, a congressional study group.

Bush is under growing pressure from Congress to confront China over the toll its economic rise has taken on textile, intellectual property and other interests in the United States. Simultaneously, the Pentagon is sounding increasingly nervous about China’s rapid military buildup. And there’s a new round of fresh worries about China’s record on human rights.

That’s only a beginning of the tests Bush will face in an eight-day trip that will also take him to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia. Here’s a look at what Bush faces in his Asia trip:

Q: In the big picture, what does the president hope to accomplish?

A: Certainly he wants to cement ties with all four nations, and enlist their help in pressuring North Korea to cease its nuclear ambitions. But in the larger sense he’s sending a message that the United States’ foreign policy issues don’t begin and end with Iraq. Early in his presidency Bush signaled that the nation’s foreign policy agenda would tilt westward toward the Pacific. This trip, with its special focus on China’s rapid economic and military rise, will help push along that notion. Peter Brookes, director of Asian studies for the Heritage Foundation, said the shift is warranted. “Despite the current challenges of Islamic terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan, Asia is likely to define American international relations more than any other region or transnational issue in this century,” he said.

Q: President Bush characterized China during his 2000 campaign as a “strategic competitor,” but after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks he backed away from that confrontational view. Is he once again taking stronger aim now at a rising China?

A: Some signs point in that direction. Bush for several years has described the two countries’ relationship as “complex.” In recent days he’s taken to describing relations as “mixed.” Top economic officials last month were pressuring China to undertake a second revaluation of its currency to reduce the country’s export clout and raised questions about its fast-growing claims on oil supplies. On the military side, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld pointedly asked why China is spending so much on its military development. “The big war crowd in the Pentagon is gearing up big time,” said military analyst Thomas P.M. Barnett.

Q: What is China’s strategy? Is it in the process of adopting a more confrontational approach?

A: Most analysts say China is sticking with its policy of non-confrontation with the United States to better facilitate economic growth. Simultaneously, though, it is spending nearly $100 billion a year on its military and occasionally flexing its rhetorical muscle. Last summer a Chinese military official, Zhu Chenghu, said China was prepared to use nuclear weapons against the United States should the American side intervene in a fight over Taiwan. China has also given little ground on the human rights front. Last week a Chinese court convicted a Protestant minister, his wife and brother on charges of illegally printing Bibles _ a verdict that seemed particularly adversarial with Bush’s visit just a week away.

Q: Isn’t corporate America depending on a benign U.S.-China climate to get a shot at the most promising consumer market in the world?

A: Indeed it is (along with much of the rest of the world). And it’s a key reason why many on both sides are hopeful that China’s expansion can occur without too much saber-rattling. From retail outlets to Internet and telecommunications providers to the financial services industry, American business can’t wait to mine China’s exponential growth. Case in point: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be in China this week as well, part of a state trade delegation.

Q: The president arrives just as negotiations are about to resume with North Korea on its nuclear weapons ambitions. What’s the president’s game plan there?

A: Keep the pressure on. Although North Korea has agreed in principle to refrain from nuclear weapons production, Bush told journalists this week that negotiations so far have been “mainly talk. … My hope, of course, is that we begin to see action, results.” After insisting for years that the United States would negotiate with North Korea only within a coalition of six nations, this year the United States also added two-way talks to the mix. Negotiations are set to resume in December.

Q: In South Korea, Bush will attend a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group. What does he hope to achieve there?

A: Not what he had hoped. The administration has already acknowledged failure in its original aim _ to push completion of a worldwide round of trade talks. Trade czar Rob Portman said last week that negotiations had fallen far short of the United States’ ambitions and leave in doubt the future of a 10-year global effort to reduce trade restrictions. Coming on the heels of another setback on his Latin America trip, and all-time-high trading deficits, that leaves Bush in the position of trying to re-establish momentum for his global economic agenda. Also as part of the APEC discussions, the president will press for cooperation against terrorism in Southeast Asia and urge action against the avian flu.

Q: This will make it two major foreign trips in less than a month for the president. Is this part of a White House strategy to change the subject from Iraq and Bush’s assorted domestic problems?

A: Presidential second terms are well known for their focus on foreign affairs, but these trips don’t prove the case. Both are part of major summit meetings involving multiple countries and were planned months ago. Time will tell whether Bush continues spending quality time crossing the oceans.