Asian suspicions of U.S. hamper Bush

Saturday, October 18, 2003

WASHINGTON -- There's really only one thing President Bush can expect as he travels through Asia seeking support for his policies: a hard sell in a region where growing numbers of people are deeply suspicious of the United States.

An overwhelming percentage of people in largely Muslim Indonesia view the United States unfavorably. Even in South Korea, a key ally, more than half have a poor view of America.

"It'll be pretty hard to win the hearts of local people," said Yufan Hao, a political science professor at Colgate University. While moderate Muslim leaders will give Bush a certain amount of support, he said "that support probably will be limited" because the popular vote in the region is "actually not very friendly toward the United States."

Bush's messages on issues ranging from Iraq to the Middle East to trade with China might resonate with Australians and get a fair hearing from the Japanese. But they could very well be rebuffed by the masses in Malaysia, Singapore and especially Indonesia, where disdain for America has grown more palpable in the past year.

In a June poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 83 percent of Indonesians said they view the United States unfavorably, up from 60 percent a year earlier. Nearly 70 percent of those who expressed negative views blamed them on Bush, while 20 percent blamed the United States in general.

The Pew survey found similar erosion of the U.S. image in other nations that participate in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that Bush is attending in Bangkok, Thailand.

In South Korea, 46 percent held positive views of the United States, down from 53 percent a year ago. In Australia, a staunch ally in the Iraq war, only 60 percent said they had positive opinions of America. In Russia, only 36 percent said they held favorable views toward America, compared with 61 percent in 2002.

The hard feelings have their roots in debates over long-standing matters such as human rights and Asian versus Western values, said Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of East Asian relations at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

Those festering sentiments color perceptions of other, more immediate issues such as Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, North Korea's nuclear programs or Bush's bid to get China to adjust the value of its currency.

"They feel if the United States can take out Saddam, why can't they do it to other leaders, other nations? So they are suspicious, concerned, worried to some extent," Zhu said. "In the dispute between China and the United States, most of the nations seem to side with China."

As for South Korea, he said: "They don't believe North Korea is a threat, they believe North Koreans are brothers and sisters. So over there, anti-Americanism is strong."

Perhaps sensing this, Bush reached out ahead of his trip with messages tailored for the masses.

In interviews with Asian journalists, he praised Singapore's "virtual customs inspection process" for tracking shipments at port. He declared Australia an equal partner -- "We don't see it as a deputy sheriff, we see it as a sheriff" -- in fighting terrorism, and lauded the performance of Australian soldiers.

And he said he felt confident he could quash anti-American sentiment in Indonesia if given a chance to "explain that ... we have a great, very compassionate foreign policy."

That, in itself, creates a dilemma for Bush: Explaining his policies in a way palatable to Americans -- his primary audience -- while also easing negative perceptions among Asians.

It's not that APEC allies would be unsympathetic when Bush makes the case for, say, global support of Iraq, said Vanderbilt University political science professor Thomas Schwartz. They simply want to know what effect Bush's plans will have on their countries' economies and politics.

"A country like Indonesia, they're going to be very, very reluctant to get anywhere near this issue," Schwartz said. "But the Japanese leadership does think it needs the United States -- particularly on the issue of North Korea -- and it's not going to upset the apple cart ... despite the fact that public opinion polls in Japan demonstrate the war was not very popular."

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Sonya Ross has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1992.

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