Asia has prominent spot on Bush’s radar

North Korea tops key issues on his agenda for the rest of his term.

MANY people see the US as being mired in Iraq, which is distracting it from other critical issues even as the Bush administration fades away. Not President George W. Bush.

In a feisty mood during an interview at the White House on Thursday, he declared that Asia remains very much on his radar screen, even though Iraq is at the top of the priority list.

Several key issues in the region are on his agenda for the remaining 16 months of his presidency, he said.

The threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea, promoting free trade in the region, and getting China and other countries on board for climate change might well dominate his attention as he readies for the last stretch.

President Bush made clear in the interview with The Straits Times and four other foreign journalists that ties between the US and the Asia-Pacific “have never been better”.

“Asia is a place where we’ve spilt a lot of blood in the past, and now it’s a place of peace,” he said, stressing how important it was to remind Americans of the importance of constructive ties with the region.

“Asia is a place where the United States was engaged militarily, and now we’re engaged culturally, socially and economically.”

He listed several accomplishments under his belt in dealing with the region over the past six years: a “positive relationship” with China, stronger US-Asean ties, free trade agreements and enhanced security cooperation.

But there was work still to be done on several fronts. The rogue regime in Pyongyang was top of the list.

When asked by The Straits Times what he considered to be the major tasks at hand for his administration in Asia, Mr Bush replied: “Unfinished business is North Korea.”

He said that progress had been made in the six-party talks, with Pyongyang’s decision to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Critics, however, charge that little progress has been made in eliminating North Korea’s programme.

True, the Yongbyon reactor is shuttered, but that reactor was not frequently operational in the recent past. Negotiations in July also ended without agreement on a timetable.

Mr Bush also expressed frustration with the slow work in getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programmes.

He noted: “Can it happen before I’m through? Yes it can. I hope so. We’re in control of putting the process in place. But it’s the leader of North Korea who gets to make the decision. It’s his choice to make. I’ve made my choice.”

Many might consider Mr Bush a lame duck in the twilight of his presidency.

But during the interview, he exuded the vigour of a man who had just assumed office. In fact, he said so himself.

When asked about his age, he replied: “I remember when I turned 50, I felt old. But now that I’m over 60, it’s not that old.”

Despite losing several key aides in recent months – the last being Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales – he showed no signs of political fatigue or being under siege.

Mr Bush – dressed in a dapper pin-striped blue suit and a red tie – was in his element during the 45-minute session in the windowless Roosevelt Room in the West Wing.

It was a quintessential George W. Bush show. He peppered his responses with bluster, jokes and a hard-headedness on issues that were close to his heart.

China was one issue he spoke forcefully about, intent on seeing the progress in bilateral relations through to the end of his administration.

Indeed, he took pains to highlight the growing ties between the two economic giants – a relationship he described as “complex”.

“I view China as a positive opportunity,” he said. “I have got a warm and cordial relationship with President Hu Jintao. I like him; I like to talk to him. He’s a smart man.

“We can share issues together. We’ve got a personal relationship.”

But bilateral ties were coloured by America’s huge trade deficit with China and human rights.

Another pressing issue was getting Beijing to raise its emission standards. Mr Bush said that any climate change agreement at the upcoming Apec Summit in Sydney without China would be ineffective.

Trade would also be high on the agenda. The President was keen to see an American-led free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific down the road.

Sounding like a man with miles to go before he rests, he said: “I see the United States as the big driver for trade. We’re a significant economy.

“At Apec, people ought to be wondering whether or not George Bush is going to keep taxes low to make sure our economy continues to grow because we’re a significant trading partner.”

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