The preparations for and progress of the Iraqi war, which cannot seem to end, have created unheard-of problems for the US relations with its traditional European partners for more than two years. But the visit of Vice-President Richard Cheney to Japan, China and South Korea showed that the Iraqi problem is also complicating the US foreign policy in the Far East.
Asia is acting like and unlike Europe with regard to the Iraqi crisis. The likeness is limited to the fact that the USA has allies in Asia - above all Japan and South Korea, which Cheney has visited - who symbolically supported the occupation of Iraq in a bid to get foreign policy dividends. And now they are facing the same problems as the US European allies, who acted similarly.
The recent events in Iraq have complicated, to put it mildly, Cheney's visit to the two countries, above all to Japan. Initially, the vice-president planned to discuss long-term allied relations. But all these considerations faded when Japanese citizens were taken hostage in Iraq. It was a no-win situation, as Richard Cheney would have lost face even if he cancelled the visit. By arriving in Tokyo, he acted as the lightning rod, accepting the first and fiercest blow of public wrath initially directed at Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The Japanese premier decided to step up his foreign policy by sending troops to Iraq, which eventually provoked the hostage crisis.
Cheney's visit showed again that those US partners in Asia who are not seen as its allies have the least problems. China, which, like most countries, has always viewed the Iraqi war as a mistake, at the very least, was the most pleasant part of the vice-president's Far Eastern tour, including for himself. Chinese hostages in Iraq were released as soon as it became clear that they are not Japanese, just as Russian hostages had been released with apologies. This is why Cheney breathed easier in Beijing than he did in Tokyo or Seoul.
Besides, China may be the only country in Asia that can help the USA get out of the Iraqi dead-end. Such US allies as Japan and South Korea have no freedom of action in the Middle East and are possibly deadlocked, while China has a good reputation and room for manoeuvre there. Not that China is expected to play a special role in Iraq, which only Arab countries supported by the UN can play. At least, Japan and the other countries that have troops in Iraq under US command cannot even claim the role.
But maybe Iraq is damaging not the whole of Washington's Asian policy? The North Korean nuclear problem, which Cheney discussed in all of the three capitals, is surely not part of the Middle East problems. The main issue Cheney wanted to discuss in Asia was the unconfirmed information from Pakistan, according to which some time ago North Koreans had showed to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, three devices that looked like nuclear charges.
But, strangely, Iraq has had its effect on the issue, too, because South Korea and all other neighbours of North Korea have always watched the US for signs of trying to apply the Iraqi scenario against North Korea. Will it provoke a military operation instead of trying to determine if North Korea has nuclear weapons, instead of finding a peaceful solution that would suit all Asian countries?
Cheney is seen as the main ideologue of the Iraqi style of US attitude to North Korea. Washington has been accused of complicating, on a par with Pyongyang, the six-party talks on the North Korean problem in Beijing.
Here is a result of such policy. In Seoul, Cheney found himself in the epicentre of a political crisis that left South Korea without a president. A year and a half ago, Washington's attempt to apply the Iraqi scenario in North Korea produced an unpleasant surprise: No Mu-hyon, who advocated integration with Pyongyang and a policy that would be more independent of the USA, was elected president. Now that he has been impeached, his numerous supporters will inevitably explain it by Washington's intrigues. So, even if No Mu-hyon is re-elected president, it will still be said that his non-independent foreign policy is provoking a crisis on the peninsula. The public already demands the election of somebody who would steer a policy independent of the USA.
In a word, US failures in Iraq make many countries suspicious, especially in Asia, because there is an additional factor in the Asians' attitude to the US policy - Vietnam. The Vietnam factor has been given a new lease on life because of Iraq. Iraq is not Vietnam, President Bush said the other day in an hour-long CNN show. Indeed, one can find many dissimilarities between the two countries and the two wars, including climate and religion. But Asians remember that war too well not to see similarities between them.
The USA was drawn into the Vietnam war (and it dragged its allies along) to the accompaniment of fine words of its mission of defenders of Asia from communism. As a result, the original US mixture of idealism, ignorance and stubbornness - which is easily recognised in Iraq - had plunged into an uncontrolled crisis not just South Vietnam but the whole of Indochina and half of Asia. That crisis lasted for decades, not years, and some think it is not over yet. What is the true date of normalisation in Cambodia: 1979, when Vietnamese troops entered it, or 1992-1993, when UN troops took over? Or has the situation not normalised to this day?
So, no matter what Cheney discussed in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo and no matter what solutions he suggested for seemingly local conflicts, his interlocutors still remember the deadlocked Vietnamese crisis and see that the Iranian deadlock looks very much like it.