Powell in Asia

October 29, 2004

IF PRESIDENT BUSH sent Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to Northeast Asia this week to highlight the administration's commitment to ensuring security in that part of the globe and, specifically, the strength of its coalition against North Korea, the trip backfired. Mr. Powell left Asia publicly hammered -- by China and South Korea over the administration's stance on North Korea and by Taiwan over the secretary's apparent misstatement of the long-standing U.S. policy on "one China."

Mr. Powell's Taiwan gaffe was just sloppy icing on a poorly cooked cake: Neglecting Taiwan's asserted sovereignty, he suggested both the island and Beijing are seeking reunification under China's banner -- with U.S. support. If he meant to give to Beijing that contradiction of a much more balanced U.S. policy, then it's another sign of the leverage China has gained in exchange for its too-limited help with North Korea.

The bad cake was actually a bit of gunboat diplomacy. Mr. Powell's trip was timed to a U.S.-led naval exercise showing off the potential for a blockade of North Korea. But instead of cranking up pressure on the North, the secretary's journey displayed the administration's lack of progress in defusing the North's serious nuclear threat. Mr. Powell went to Beijing saying the Chinese had to do more to resolve the crisis, and he left with China -- and South Korea -- publicly lambasting America for its you-give-up-first inflexibility at the bargaining table.

So much for the linchpin of Mr. Bush's Korea strategy, a strong united front with the North's neighbors. The president has made much of the Clinton administration's failed nuclear pact with the North; Mr. Bush's policy now looks just as ineffective. Handy solutions do not abound for this very dangerous dispute; indeed, the North's threat likely cannot be neutralized without considerable help from China and the rest of Northeast Asia. But the week before the presidential vote, Mr. Powell's trip casts strong doubt on whether this administration has much chance of accomplishing that difficult trick.

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