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Monday, Aug. 6, 2001

Powell earns top marks on Asian tour

LOS ANGELES -- Colin Powell's first week in Asia as U.S. secretary of state broke what almost has become an unfortunate tradition. It was a success.

There's something about Asia that unnerves otherwise unshakable secretaries of state. Remember the initial visit of Warren Christopher, the Clinton administration's first secretary, to Beijing? It was a disaster. The Chinese bridled at his lectures on human rights and showed him the door. Powell's immediate predecessor, Madeleine Albright, was usually ill at ease in Asia, especially with Chinese officials, whom she found irritating, and Japanese ones, whom she found evasive.

The retired four-star general's Asia swing, beginning in Japan and ending in Australia -- with stops in Vietnam, South Korea and China -- was filled with similar potential pitfalls. But Powell sidestepped a lot of them.

Indeed, if diplomacy is the art of forging friendships, outfoxing enemies and tamping down tensions, then he is emerging as something of a diplomatic artisan.

He has, after all, held the office for little more than six months. In China, he was almost Confucian in his politeness and indirectness, without anyone missing the point.

"We have seen enormous improvements in China over the last 25 or 30 years," he said, without failing to note that the Chinese "still have a way to go before they would meet the standards . . . not American standards (of human rights) being imposed upon China, but standards . . . the civilized world . . . believes in . . ."

In Seoul, he announced "strong support" for South Korea's policy of engagement with the North, despite the incomprehensible cooling last March of his boss, President George W. Bush, toward South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy. "We can meet at a time and a place of the DPRK's (North Korea's) choice, and we have no preconditions," he said.

He brought the same open-mindedness to Vietnam, where the Vietnam vet, who as a young officer saw heartbreaking battle, must have had to work to keep his emotions in check: "There's always a twinge, a twinge."

There was also the public Powell in Asia that went over well. At a skit performed at a major foreign ministers conference in Hanoi, Powell plunged in happily -- and shared an hilarious moment with Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka.

In China, Powell managed to escape the rigid routine of the state visit to appear at one of those large, family-style dining halls.

And in Australia, he joshed openly at a press conference with his policy nemesis, generally hawkish Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It was good to see these two U.S. officials putting on the amity show, even if the private reality is otherwise.

What Powell revealed, then, was what Asia has been waiting to see: the kinder, gentler (to recycle an old phrase of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush) foreign policy of Bush. The secretary of state, rejecting the increasingly critical view that the Bush administration is a go-it-alone gang with a hermetic personality, insisted: "I think over time people will see that we are not unilateralists, that we are deeply engaged. . . . America is a Pacific nation . . . and we will remain engaged in the Pacific."

Despite the secretary's skillful sledding, two worries surfaced. One concerned the competence of U.S. diplomacy toward China, a difficult portfolio at best, as Christopher can attest.

At a press conference with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, Powell vaguely floated the idea of a new U.S. security linkup with Japan, South Korea and Australia. Predictably, vague and vapid as it was, the very notion sent a paranoid Beijing into an eruption second only to Mount Etna. The day was saved by Downer's diplomatic retreat; the idea was hardly worth pursuing, he said adroitly, if China felt so threatened.

But Powell's unwise foray into this alliance scenario only added to suspicions in Beijing that Powell's kinder, gentler diplomacy is a front behind which hawks like Rumsfeld can plan their missile defenses and anti-China troop redeployments.

What Powell needs urgently is better staff advice on China. There are very few real Chinese experts at high levels in Washington, and this looks to be the administration's Achilles' heel.

The other issue, unresolved at this point, is whether Powell is only talking for Powell when he speaks publicly, and not necessarily for the president. Perhaps that issue will be resolved in the fall, when Bush visits China and has to speak for himself.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser. Los Angeles Times Syndicate International

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