Asia Economy

APEC: Bush and Putin Seek to Engage Asia


President George W. Bush prepared for an Asia-Pacific summit in Australia, saying on Friday the United States would consider a peace treaty with North Korea if it gave up nuclear arms.

Washington has been accused of ignoring Asia as it focuses on Iraq, but on the eve of this weekend's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Bush weighed into major regional issues.

"We must press the regime in Burma (Myanmar) to stop arresting, harassing, and assaulting pro-democracy activists for organizing or participating in peaceful demonstrations," Bush said in a speech to Asia-Pacific business executives in Sydney.

The comments come a day after hundreds of Buddhist monks held a group of government officials for several hours and torched their cars in anger against the military that rules impoverished Myanmar, formerly called Burma.

Bush also said China should allow more freedoms ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games and later after meeting South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun offered the possibility of a treaty with Pyongyang.

"We're looking forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will happen when Kim Jong-il verifiably dismantles his weapons program," said Bush.

"If you could be a little clearer..." Roh urged the president. Bush then said more directly that he was referring to a formal peace agreement. Fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an inconclusive truce.

Bush's comments follow several weeks of apparent progress in ending a crisis over the weapons program of a country he had once bracketed with pre-war Iraq and Iran in an "axis of evil."

A Foreign Ministry spokesman for China, which fought along side the North in the Korean War and was a party to the original ceasefire, said Roh had raised the issue in a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao earlier in the day and Beijing had a "positive attitude" toward the prospect of a truce.

Next week, nuclear experts from the United States, China and Russia will visit North Korea to conduct a survey of nuclear facilities to be disabled, U.S. envoy Chris Hill said on Friday.

The inspections "would mark another important step toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," said Hill in Sydney.

Russia Looks East

Myanmar's crackdown on protests against huge fuel price rises also drew expressions of dismay from other Asia-Pacific nations.    

China, Myanmar's closest ally which is usually reticent when it comes to the affairs of others, also sounded frustrated with its southeast Asian neighbor.

"We hope to see reconciliation and improvement in the situation in Burma," said a foreign ministry spokesman.

But while Bush was reinforcing his Asian credentials, Russian President Vladimir Putin was seeking to forge new links.

"Closer ties with APEC naturally complements our own plans of economic development of Siberia and the Far East," Putin said.

Putin signed a major deal on Friday to buy Australian uranium to fuel civilian nuclear plants -- a day after snaring a $1 billion arms sale deal with Indonesia.

Australia holds 40% of the world's reserves, but only agreed to sell uranium to Moscow after guarantees it would not be resold to Iran or Syria. Russia has close ties with both states.

Putin is vying with the United States and China for a leading role in the region and wants Russia to host 2012 APEC summit.

Putin and Bush met in Sydney but did not delve deeply into any sensitive subjects, instead the men reminisced about fishing.

Bush on Friday offered to host a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders at his Texas ranch, as he sought to counter perceptions that he was not paying enough attention to the region.

He also said he planned to name an ambassador to the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

On the issue of trade, Bush said he was ready to show flexibility to jump-start the moribund Doha round of world trade talks, which he called a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity.

But he said intransigence by just a handful of countries could bring negotiations to a standstill.

Host Australia has placed climate change at the top of the APEC leaders' agenda and Bush says he will support a strong statement on global warming.

But there is a split in APEC over climate change, with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer conceding there were "very difficult negotiations" underway.

"If we can get a good declaration out of this, that will be a very great achievement. But I make no predictions about how those negotiations will go," Downer told reporters.