NEW YORK – Now that Barack Obama has made history by being elected President of the United States, people throughout the Asia-Pacific region fervently hope he will focus on Asia in a way that he did not during the election season. In the past few months, every time I visited an Asian country – whether South Korea or India, China or Japan – I was asked repeatedly about candidate Obama’s positions on three issues: trade, foreign policy, and the new geo-economic order. We all now hope that President-elect Obama will provide the answers, not only in words, but also in actions.
Policy wonks and interested Asians alike often say that when Republicans are in power in America, Asians breathe a confident sigh of relief. Their assumption is that Republicans will back free trade and oppose protectionism. This time around, they have not heard much from the President-elect, who is a Democrat, on trade with Asia, and what they have heard about his position on the North American Free Trade Agreement – an alleged desire to rewrite that trade pact unilaterally – does not inspire confidence.
At the same time, countries like India feel that the US, along with Europe, have been on both sides of “free” and “fair” trade – but always from a narrow nationalistic perspective. If the US is serious about “fair” trade, they say, the new administration will need, for example, to deal with the unfairness of agricultural subsidies, which led to the collapse of the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks. Most importantly, a trade policy must be articulated that is both free and fair (not only for US workers, but also for Asian workers), and that reassures Asians that Obama will be aware of their needs.
While the US economy falls into a deep recession, the economies of large Asian countries like China and India will continue to grow at an annual rate of 7% to 9%. They will remain an important source of import demand, especially for high technology and industrial goods. This could be a great boon to the US economy.
Asian leaders have often complained that at a time when Asia became increasingly interconnected and China began to enlarge its sphere of influence, America was largely absent in the region. Indeed, for the past seven years America’s foreign policy seems to have been conducted entirely through the prism of the “war on terror” and the Iraq war. While there were some singular bilateral accomplishments, such as the adoption of the US-India civil nuclear energy deal, the US has been perceived to be less effective in dealing with the region’s burgeoning multilateral frameworks.
Now, fully aware of Obama’s claims for a presidency that will be about the future, Asians are eager to hear about his vision of the Asia-Pacific region and how the US will deal with Asia’s giants – China and India – while maintaining strong connections to Japan.
The need for Obama to address the region’s new realities early in his tenure has been underlined by the current financial crisis, which has made abundantly clear that the center of global economic power has shifted toward the East. It is also clear that the West’s future role will depend on how America manages this new distribution of power.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has begun to talk about a Bretton Woods II that would give a bigger voice to Asia in the world’s great multilateral financial and economic institutions, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has asked that China help the West during these difficult times.
And, while scholars have begun to talk about building an Asia-Pacific community that can match the Atlantic community’s extensive network of relationships, there has been no clear signal from the US government about America’s role in this transformation. So Asians are keen to hear Obama’s thoughts about a new or renewed international system, and hope that his vision of a new global order will incorporate the rising countries of Asia as America’s partners.
I was in Korea last week, and several of my friends and colleagues, some in prominent public positions, were thrilled at the prospect of the new US president. They marveled at the fact that America’s democracy can actually make it possible for a youngish African-American to become the leader of the free world. Now, this rising region is desperate to hear Obama’s thoughts about America’s role in Asia, thoughts that are commensurate with Asia’s importance – and with the scope of his vision.