SCMP Friday, December 15, 2000

Bush set to play happy families


Between party-finance abuses and the leaking of nuclear secrets, the Clinton administration has at times been an easy target for Republican right-wingers keen for a more hawkish line on the threat of an emerging China. Overnight, the arena in Washington has shifted and the eight-year Clinton era is over following Vice-President Al Gore's dramatic concession. Texas Governor George W.Bush is President-elect.
A self-proclaimed ''compassionate conservative'' pledging a bipartisan approach to foreign policy, there is no guarantee he will provide the hard-ball policies some right-wing pockets crave.
Watching Mr Bush deal with various hard-liners in the months ahead will be an intriguing business. For the time being, they are likely to suffer in silence, happy that a Republican is in power. Others will angle for administration jobs.
''They are going to be a constant factor for him to deal with,'' one lobbyist with strong links to the Republican Party said. ''The more extreme factions are still definitely out there, some even in the military establishment. They have been energised, and they will want their voices heard. Mr Bush will have to listen and be perceived to incorporate elements of their ideas to keep one big, happy family while in power.''
Drop in on various right-wing security forums in Washington, and you find it is the hawkish legacy of the Reagan years that still moves hearts rather than the more recent ''kinder, gentler'' Republican rule of Mr Bush's father, former president George Bush.
Reagan-era figures such as Caspar Weinberger, a former defence secretary turned Forbes consultant get standing ovations as they warn about the strategic threat posed by China. Much younger figures, such as California congressman Dana Rohrabacher, fill congressional hearings with tub-thumping warnings of ''Red Chinese Narco-Marxist terrorists''. Other groups want instant bans on slowly developing military links and even efforts to stop mainland firms from raising funds on the debt markets of Wall Street, a virtually unthinkable step in an increasingly globalised marketplace.
Talk to Bush insiders, however, and a more rational and cautious approach develops, reflective of his party's strong business links and his father's strong China ties, after years as Washington's ambassador to Beijing in the 1970s. Mr Bush has spoken of China being a ''strategic competitor'' rather than a ''strategic partner'', but he still ultimately preaches engagement, warning that America cannot afford to isolate the major powers, such as Beijing and Moscow. He appears an out-and-out free-trader and moderate on human rights, warning that the US administration must not be an ''ugly American'' in asserting its values.
Perhaps most significantly, while wanting to engage China, Mr Bush has vowed to intensify America's relations with more traditional friends and allies. This means possibly expanded military ties with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. These ideas, echoed extensively by some of his foreign-policy advisers, could manifest themselves in expanding theatre-missile-defence plans and expanded military sales to Taiwan. Here, Mr Bush's right-wing flanks will applaud, but some in the region will wonder if he has his post-Cold War priorities right.
''I think the right-wing hotheads are going to have to get used to extreme caution from a new Bush administration,'' one Republican said. ''They should be pleased with his victory and lie low for the time being rather than pushing more-extreme barrows. Bush will appear flexible, but ultimately they are not going to get too many carrots from him. Characters such as [vice-president-elect] Dick Cheney and Colin Powell [widely tipped to be Mr Bush's secretary of state] may be conservative, but they are very cautious, reasonable men. They will have a huge role in how Bush operates.''
A strong sign of this flexibility came early on in the campaign when right-wingers bemoaned America's obligation to retreat from control of the Panama Canal. Li Ka-shing's Hutchison Whampoa port operations suddenly became the focus for all manner of extreme sabre-rattling from the likes of Mr Rohrabacher and Mr Weinberger.
After ducking the issue for months, Mr Bush finally issued a statement that talked tough but was ultimately couched in terms of America's international obligations and rights to use force in its former protectorate the status quo, in other words. When asked if he was worried about China ''taking over'', Mr Bush did not actually mention China in his reply, even as he threatened to ''liberate the Panama Canal if I have to''.
''Our country has signed a treaty; I believe we ought to honour the treaty,'' Mr Bush replied. ''But when I'm president, if I find in any way, shape or form the canal is closed to world interests, I will do whatever it takes to keep the canal open. It is in our national strategic interest to have a peaceful hemisphere. It is in our national strategic interest to have a hemisphere in which trade can flow freely. I will liberate the canal if I have to.''
It might have sounded aggressive, but that is exactly what the 1977 canal treaty brokered by Democratic president Jimmy Carter provided for.
Privately, Bush insiders mocked the China-takeover theory, insisting they had an eye on modern realities. Beijing will be certainly hoping such flexibility can prevail.
Greg Torode ( ) is the Post's Washington correspondent.