Bush Seeks Asian Allies in New War ; Bush's Trip to Japan, Korea, and China Underpins His Goal of Strengthening US Ties

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President Bush's first trip abroad in the next phase of the "war on terror" has been billed as a low-key, working visit, a time to combine plain talk and praise for the leaders of Japan, South Korea, and China.

But at a time when the Bush team is emphasizing the war on terror above all else, US alliances in Asia are of paramount importance. Sept. 11 has only bolstered the Bush team's goals of strengthening US security installations in East Asia and the Pacific Rim.

The next phase of the war on terror further increases the likelihood that Washington will turn to Japan. Southeast Asia - reportedly home to various Al Qaeda cells - is a part of the world where Japan still wields significant power.

Similarly, Japan's maintenance of business and diplomatic ties to Iran can afford Tokyo a role as a conduit to Tehran, potentially opening up a dialogue with a country White House officials say currently "leaves them confused." But Japan's influence in both regions has been built on its position as a financial powerhouse, a position some say will gradually slip away if Japan does not reform its debt-saddled economy.

Yet Bush faces some fancy footwork in the three Asian nations he chose to visit. Beyond the common thread of antiterror, the White House faces strains among the very different nations on his itinerary: Rising China and fiscally beleaguered Japan are ratcheting up a quiet but furious competition for Asian preeminence. And the White House itself has raised the stakes here by making the missile-building regime of North Korea a charter member of the "axis of evil," sending a shock to South Korea.

So while Bush is praising China, Japan, and South Korea, and wants help from each in the next phase of the war, some analysts say the best the White House can do in Asia is work diligently to heal divisions and build confidence.

"President Bush's ... Asia sojourn is a 'patch and caulk' operation - no major new initiatives, but rather an effort to repair cracks and fill gaps in the plaster of strained relationships," says Richard Baum, an Asia specialist at UCLA. "This won't be easy, because the gaps and strains are serious."

Bush will address the Japanese parliament today, walk up to the barbed wire that separates South Korea from North Korea tomorrow, and take questions from students at China's prestigious Qinghua University on Friday.

In South Korea, Bush must resolve his brazen "axis of evil" concept of the North, with the "sunshine policy" of President Kim Dae Jung, which two years ago brought the sides together for the first time in 50 years.

In China, the president will seek to gain Beijing's agreement on antiterror measures, such as an export list for sensitive products that could be used for high-tech weaponry. At the same time, he must express concern at the regime's treatment of religious groups and political prisoners.

In Japan, Bush has embraced embattled Prime Minister Koizumi - even while advocating reform of Japan's deficit spending, bad bank loans, and bloated state industry. …