President Bush has reportedly cancelled his September 5 meeting with leaders of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The conclave was to mark the 30th anniversary of the opening official ties between the United States and this grouping of ten Asian nations. The cancellation comes a personal blow to Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, who arranged Bush’s attendance. (The island republic is a staunch American ally, one of the few remaining ones in the region.)
The President’s slight, which is keenly felt in Asia, was made worse by news that Condoleezza Rice will probably skip an ASEAN ministerial meeting next month. It is reported that the President and the secretary of state are staying close to home because of Iraq.
Arguments about whether we should stay in Iraq almost always focus on democratization, terrorism, and American resolve. Unless the subject is Afghanistan, we rarely talk about how this conflict is diverting the Bush administration’s attention from other parts of the planet. Even if the United States can prevail in Iraq, the President’s legacy will be clouded if he loses Asia to China. Whatever happens in the future, East Asia and the subcontinent now contain more than half the world’s population. In this area we find six of the world’s ten most populous states—including the largest democracy, the largest autocracy, and the largest Muslim society—and most of its vital economies, which account for almost a quarter of global gross domestic product.
If Washington cannot conduct an Asian and an Iraq policy at the same time—and so far the signs of its being able to do so are not good—we may need to broaden the definition of “American resolve” to include maintaining our presence in the far east.