Speeding Through the Far East

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9 AM, Bangkok

Remember how President Bush’s father played golf? That insane speeding through the links where he’d blow through 18 holes in 45 minutes? His father applied that ethic to leisure. His son applies it to work. Yesterday, he spent just over 12 hours in Japan and eight hours in the Philippines. He gets to an event, he speaks, he moves on. Who else leaves a State Dinner by 8 PM to catch a plane? Speech. Motorcade. Speech. Motorcade. There’s no Clintonesque lingering or working the crowd.

I didn’t get too close to the President in Japan. Those of us in the press corps who travel with him on an accompanying 747 often don’t get that close. And so when he got to Japan, I was no small distance away while our “pool”—the eyes and ears of the press corps—hung close to him. The visit went fine from what I could tell. Japan coughed up about $1 billion for Iraq and the greeting was warm enough although there’s gotta be something slightly wrong when the President spends over 24 hours raising money and showing the flag in central California on Wednesday and Thursday and then blows through Japan and the Philippines in under a day.

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I was in the pool yesterday in Manila, so I was closer to the actual President as opposed to being shunted off with the hoard of journalists at a “filing center” in a hotel miles from the action. It was wild watching thousands of Filipinos, most friendly, many emerging from the slums, line the streets as Bush’s motorcade sped sometimes inches from the throng. For long stetches police seemed to be absent and you really felt like some crowd might get plowed down.

Now we’re in Thailand for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. There are two ways of looking at such confabs. On one hand, it’s sort of laughable. Nothing real ever comes out of such meetings. They pass resolutions but they mean little. APEC is particularly feeble. It’s biggest goal of creating a free trade zone over the next decade among its 21-member nations isn’t going to happen. The group is far flung, including all the nations lining the pacific. If anything, the rise of regional trading blocs seems more likely than Chile and China suddenly singing Kumbaya together. The collapse of world trade talks in Doha, Qatar a few weeks back didn’t bode well.

And the American goals here’ll be tough. Bush wants the Chinese to strengthen the Yuan so that we’ll be able to sell our goods more easily in China and Chinese goods will cost more here. But whittling away at the U.S. trade deficit—which now runs an annual rate of $433 billion—won’t be that easy. China isn’t budging on the Yuan. It likes its big trade surpluses. And with the U.S. borrowing so much from China to finance the budget deficit, our leverage isn’t much better than yours when you get your Visa bill at the end of the month. When you see the APEC TV ads on CNN International—yes, they have them—it’s easy to laugh a bit at the tag line “Thailand and APEC, a Beautiful Reason to Smile.”

The other impulse at a conference like this is to be in awe. There’s a kind of jawdropping amazement one gets coming to the region. Despite regional woes like Japan’s seemingly endemic recession, Asian economic might is still awe inspiring when you think about what these countries were like 40 or 50 years ago. They were starving now there's cell phones everywhere. There’s something quietly magnificent about so much economic might sitting down at a table together to lift everyone’s collective standard of living. Sure, it’s goofy when thousands of journalists and businessmen and do-good non governmental organizations swarm on a news event where the greatest tension is what the leaders will wear. (Each year at APEC the leaders pose for a group photo, donning the native costume of the host country.) But would it be better to live in a world without such confabs? Definitely not.

More tomorrow.