Despite the fact that it is easy to become cynical, especially about politics, even in a democracy, it should not be forgotten that regimes do matter and that individual leaders do matter. Contrasting former US president Bill Clinton's 1998 visit to China and the just-completed visit of President George W. Bush to Japan, South Korea and China illustrate these two realities very well.
In 1998 Clinton decided to accelerate his scheduled visit to China by six months. The reasons were never publicly explained, but Republicans noted that the visit coincided with the date of the Paula Jones trial (which was subsequently cancelled).
There is much reason to speculate that the Chinese, sensing Clinton's urgency, demanded and got Clinton's agreement on the following: to stay in China for nine days, to not visit any other country (which really meant, don't visit Japan) and to make a forthcoming statement on Taiwan from Beijing's perspective.
None of these three things were in the national interest of the US; indeed, if they were Chinese demands, the communist government almost certainly viewed the president's doing them as a sign of weakness. In fact they were done, certainly in the interest of the Chinese and possibly also in the interest of Clinton personally, rather than of his country.
In 1981, former president Ronald Reagan, who accurately labeled the Soviet Union an evil empire, decided to reappoint Mike Mansfield, a Democrat who was appointed by his predecessor Jimmy Carter, as ambassador to Japan. Mansfield advised Reagan to tell the Japanese government where he would like to see US-Japan relations go during his administration. Even if they didn't agree with the message, Mansfield said, Japanese officials would like to know the presi-dent's vision.
In his Jan. 29 "State of the Union" address, Bush labeled Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil," causing some criticism in Japan, South Korea, Europe and the US that the president was using inflammatory language.
Looking at the results of the president's recent Asian trip, I doubt he regrets having used a realistic description of three countries whose activities threaten regional and possibly even global stability.
As he explained in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, Bush did not threaten war with any or all of the countries he listed. Some have pointed out that China could have been listed as well. Despite his decision not to list China, there is little doubt that the Chinese understood what the US president said.
What is truly remarkable and important is what Bush did say, particularly in his speech to Japan's Diet. Instead of saying something which might be popular locally, as Clinton did in Shanghai in 1998, on the sensitive issue of Taiwan,Bush stated that "America will remember our commitments to the people on Taiwan."
The statement drew a huge ovation, including from many young members of the Diet.
Bush's statement and the reaction of the Japanese parliamentarians is reflective of the strategic reality that, despite the fact that both Washington and Tokyo do not officially recognize Taiwan as an independent, sovereign state, Taiwan's de facto independence is in the strategic national interests of both the US and Japan, and will remain so given the nature of the current regime in Beijing which wants the US out of Asia and wants both Taiwan and Japan under China's sphere of influence.