Bush May Extend Asia Trip After Hirohito Rites : Decision on Visits to S. Korea and China Will Send a Signal on U.S. Policy

Times Staff Writer

In its first days in office, the Bush Administration will have to decide whether the President should risk offending the Japanese by making some quick stops in other Asian countries next month after he attends the funeral of Emperor Hirohito.

This is one of the issues that will have to be settled quickly, probably within the next week, as the new Administration begins to sort out its plans and priorities for its first few weeks in office.

Whatever Bush does will be taken as an early signal of future U.S. policy toward Asia: Does Japan, in the American view of Asia, stand alone, on a different plane from all other countries in the region? Or is it seen as merely one--admittedly the most important--of several nations in East Asia in which the United States has important interests?

Ever since it was announced that Bush would fly to Tokyo for the Feb. 24 funeral, officials in both China and South Korea have let it be known they would like to have the new President stop in their countries.


Significance Seen

From the standpoint of American foreign policy, U.S. officials say, such stops could prove to be of considerable significance. For example, Bush could see China’s senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, and stress the continuing importance of ties between China and the United States a few months before Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is scheduled to make his own ground-breaking trip to Beijing.

In the weeks since Hirohito’s death, U.S. policy-makers have been debating the wisdom of a quick Asian swing next month by the new President.

On the one hand, such a trip would take at least a couple of extra days of the President’s time during his precious “honeymoon” period at home. On the other hand, it isn’t often that an American President makes the long trek across the Pacific--and once he does, it seems an inefficient use of time to have him stop only in Japan before flying home.

But there are Japanese sensibilities to consider if Bush travels elsewhere.

“My own feeling is that it (an extended tour) would be a mistake, given the nature of the funeral and the early days of the new Administration,” said one State Department official. “The Japanese are so important to us that I think it would be unwise to convey a signal that we consider them as one stop along the way.”

Another State Department official disagreed. “I don’t think it would be any great offense to Japan for him (Bush) to go elsewhere. The great offense to the Japanese would have been if Bush had not gone to the funeral in the first place.”

After Hirohito’s death on Jan. 6, Japanese officials made it plain they would like to have the new President head the American delegation to the state funeral.

Not every nation responded to such requests. In Australia, Prime Minister Bob Hawke said he had never considered attending Hirohito’s funeral. In New Zealand, Defense Minister Robert Tizard suggested that Hirohito should have been executed after World War II.

But Bush agreed to go to Tokyo, where he will be one of about 100 foreign leaders at the rites. U.S. officials have said they expect the President--along with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who will also be in the American delegation--to meet with some of these other foreign leaders in Tokyo.

Last week, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told a news conference in Beijing that Bush would be welcome to visit China after the Hirohito funeral. If the President does visit Beijing, it might well be considered a snub for him not to stop also in Seoul, where South Korean officials have said they hope for a summit with Bush.