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Bush in Asia: all about security

On eight-day swing, Bush focuses on terrorism and spread of nuclear weapons rather than traditional economic issues.

President Bush takes part in an Asian economic summit in Bangkok Monday, but there - as on the rest of his eight-day, six-country Asia trip - his emphasis will be on terrorism, security, and weapons proliferation.

The president's focus represents both a new direction for relations with the region, and a tacit recognition that Asia presents many of the gravest security threats on the globe.

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"The president is going with very little of economic importance in his pocket, to a part of the world where US relations have to a great extent been about economic ties," says security expert Kurt Campbell. "Now it's basically all security all the time."

At the two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Mr. Bush will seek broadly to draw the connection between economic prosperity and security. While proposing a ban on personal antiaircraft missiles to enhance airline security in the region, he will also tout greater participation in his Proliferation Security Initiative, which seeks to curtail trade in weapons parts and materials.

"Under the Bush administration, APEC is morphing into a security organization," says Mr. Campbell, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The focus on security in Asia goes beyond APEC. Over the weekend the president, on a stop in Manila, lauded US security ties to the Philippines, where American forces have helped President Gloria Arroyo combat the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, which has ties to Al Qaeda. And later this week Bush visits Bali, Indonesia - site of a devastating Al Qaeda-linked bombing a year ago - where he will meet with moderate Muslim leaders.

And from Tokyo (last week) to Bangkok (this week), the president is talking up the importance to the world of success in Iraq, and seeking greater international participation there - a new, unanimous UN resolution on Iraq reconstruction under his belt.

Bush is earning points among international security experts for taking the new emphasis to Asia. But at the same time, some analysts say the administration is sidestepping some of the most serious proliferation threats.

"What's most needed in Asia are the very things the president is least likely to do," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. At the top of Mr. Cirincione's list is "getting serious about negotiating an end to North Korea's nuclear program." He also includes a push to secure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, redoubled efforts to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan, and more focused attention to Iran's nuclear program. Efforts like the Proliferation Security Initiative, which the president unveiled in a speech in Warsaw last May, are "a good idea," Cirincione adds, "but it's not a substitute for core policy on solving the most pressing problems."

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Other experts are less gloomy about the tack the Bush administration has taken on proliferation concerns. In their view, forging a community of nations set on interdicting international trade in parts and fuels for weapons of mass destruction is a step toward solving regional security issues.

Pakistan has been accused of selling crucial parts for assembling nuclear weapons to countries including North Korea. Building up an international front against the spread through trade of weapons of mass destruction is also a way for the US to dispel the idea of a go-it-alone America.

"It's exactly the sort of thing [the US] is accused of never doing in other areas," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.

Where he agrees with Carnegie's Cirincione is on the lack of reassuring movement in reversing North Korea's nuclear program. Referring to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's upbeat assessment of the six-party North Korea talks, Mr. Sokolski says, "It's mistaken to think we're making tremendous progress. It's just not the case."

The North Korea challenge

The Bush administration does not anticipate the Beijing-hosted talks taking up again before December. But in the meantime North Korea earlier this month claimed publicly to have completed reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods. If true, that could put the North on course to building many more than the two nuclear bombs experts now estimate it has. Pyongyang also now says it will not return to talks that involve Japan, a pronouncement that experts say sets back the negotiations at a crucial time.

Bolstering proliferation treaty

One direction that officials and experts agree will be crucial to addressing the problem of spreading weapons of mass destruction in Asia and elsewhere is the idea of tightening the existing Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Loopholes allow a country like Iran to progress toward weapons capability - even though it claims its program is only for energy purposes and not in violation of the treaty. North Korea got around NPT restrictions by simply withdrawing from it.

Yet while the idea of tightening the treaty has been discussed, a State Department official says talks remain at the formative stage among mid-level officials and are not yet ready to be taken public. While substantial changes in the NPT would be politically difficult and are therefore unlikely, the official says what could be addressed is a set of "triggers" that would identify a country as a nuclear risk, and the international response the triggers would require.

But the official says he does not anticipate any NPT reform coming up at the APEC summit - even though Asia is the hotbed of nuclear proliferation concerns.

The North Korea problem, on the other hand, is expected to surface - even though Pyongyang opposes addressing the issue in such international contexts.

Historically the US has used APEC to sound out North Korea. Secretary of State Colin Powell says the US has some new ideas for meeting some of North Korea's security concerns short of a formal nonaggression pact. But even if the US wants APEC to become more of a security forum, it may not be ready to take on the prickly North Korea problem.

"Most Asian countries are prepared to sign off on the new focus on security issues out of concerns for their bilateral relations with the US," says CSIS's Campbell, "but there's still quite a bit of anxiety that Bush appears to be coming to them with no real trade or economic agenda."