Obama’s Asian Vision

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.