Anxiety at prospect of a Mrs President

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am

In the state rooms and diplomatic salons of East Asia two whispered questions have been echoing for months: is the United States really prepared to elect a woman president and how would more conservative parts of Asia deal with it?

Rightly or wrongly, it seems a vexing subject for many of the region's political and diplomatic elites, undoubtedly a reflection of the fact the arena is dominated by men. At times, the question seems laced with a touch of fear, almost as if the man asking it is looking for reassurance that sanity will prevail and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton will remain a former first lady.

No one will say it publicly but the prospect of a woman in the White House is leading to considerable head scratching, among both Washington's traditional regional allies such as Japan, South Korea and Thailand, and emerging former foes such as China and Vietnam. Will a new approach be required? Will the old conventions of back-room cut and thrust remain or is the playing field about to change?

Absurd as it may seem, these questions are being asked over lunches and in the corners of cocktail rooms. All the more remarkable given the likelihood that Senator Clinton would probably prove to be an entirely conventional centrist Democrat if in power.

'All new presidents enter with a touch of uncertainty, but a woman? My word, that is something very new for us,' one Japanese envoy explained. 'You must remember, it is not something that is about to happen in our system.'

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party is one of the region's last great bastions of the male-dominated smoke-filled room.

Driving the debate has been the fact that a Hillary White House has loomed as a very real prospect for months, given the damage to the Republican cause after eight controversial years of George W. Bush. Barack Obama's performance has challenged that view in recent days as he moves from fresh-faced outsider to leading Democratic contender, while the Republicans finally converge around a resurgent Senator John McCain.

The prospect of an Obama or McCain presidency would bring its own challenges, but there would be relief in some quarters that at least one uncertainty would be removed.

Rather patronisingly, some are looking to the legacy of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or her Democratic predecessor Madeleine Albright, for guidance on how a female president might behave. Dr Rice is respected in the region as a straight, forceful character - although kept from deep regional involvement by more pressing challenges in the Middle East.

Ms Albright's tenure under president Bill Clinton is still remembered with a shudder by some. Forthright and tough, Ms Albright did not hold back in private meetings when outlining the starkest political and diplomatic realities. One rare encounter with former Vietnamese Communist Party boss Le Kha Phieu ended with the hardline ideologue leaning over and telling one of his aides: 'The meeting's over ... I've had enough of listening to this lady.'

As the debate continues, files are updated on senators Obama and McCain. Senator Obama is something of an unknown on foreign policy, but his pledges to lead from the front and open dialogue with once isolated regimes raises the prospect of a bold if risky new era.

Senator McCain is a much more known quantity after his years in the Senate. A moderate Republican who is pro-trade and pro-engagement, the Vietnam war hero still likes having a tough-talking image and can be expected to shore up traditional alliances.

So far Asia has barely surfaced in the primary contests, as each party focuses on finalising a contender. That can be expected to change once the rivals start going head to head and rhetoric is fleshed out with firm policy visions in the months ahead.