Shortened Bush trip to APEC fuels criticism

on August 31 2007 10:55 AM

President George W. Bush, grappling with the unpopularity of the Iraq war at home, will make only a short trip to Australia for this year's Asia-Pacific summit, fueling criticism that he is neglecting Asia's concerns.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Sydney on September 8-9 comes as the White House puts the finishing touches on a pivotal report to Congress assessing the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq.

Bush will leave the summit a day before it ends to return to Washington before the mid-September release of the Iraq report and participate in the commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

He will not make any side trips in the region, as he usually does when he attends the APEC summit. Bush was to stop in Singapore to meet with South East Asian leaders but that has been postponed, likely to early next year.

Foreign policy analysts said that while the shortened itinerary is understandable given the pressure Bush is facing over Iraq, there may still be hard feelings.

It is going to reinforce a sense in Asia that the Bush administration hasn't paid enough attention to Asia and has focused more on the Middle East, said Adam Segal, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. That perception is widely held already and this reinforces it.

P.J. Crowley, a former official in the Clinton White House, said Bush has shown less interest in Asia than his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

There are explanations but there will also be consequences, Crowley said of the decision to leave the summit early. An absence of U.S. leaders engaging in the region leaves an opening for China to increase its influence.

As another example of U.S. inattention to the region critics cited the cancellation of a trip by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Philippines for a gathering of South Asian officials. Rice went to the Middle East instead.

Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said when Bush has engaged Asia it has often been on his own terms with a focus on terrorism, rather than the economic issues that interest many of the countries in the region.

Hathaway said Bush should take advantage of the remaining year of his term to take active steps to reassure Asia we have no intention of distancing ourselves from the region.

White House officials disagreed with any notion the administration was not focusing enough on Asia, noting that Bush has never missed an APEC gathering -- in contrast to Clinton who made last-minute decisions to skip the summits in 1995 and 1998.

This president is committed to this region and he's committed to this region for very good reasons. Our economic future is tied to this region. Our security future is tied to this region, said Dennis Wilder, an Asia specialist at the White House National Security Council.

I can tell you that, having watched (Bush) with the leaders of East Asia, he has very close personal friendships with many of them and he knows them well from these meetings.

Primo Joelianto, an Indonesian foreign ministry official, played down concerns over Bush's plans to leave the summit early.

I don't think it is a big issue, he said. We can see at the moment Bush is being preoccupied with other things and APEC may not be his number one priority. It can happen to any leader of any country.

Bush is due to arrive in Sydney late on Tuesday and will spend much of Wednesday with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a staunch U.S. ally. Bush has several other bilateral meetings planned, including one with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Even some analysts critical of the administration's stance on Asia still credited Bush with managing the relationship with China effectively, despite initial indications that the U.S.-China relationship would be rocky under Bush.

China has been one of the strong points of the policy toward Asia, said Segal.

(Additional reporting by Ahmad Pathoni)

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