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Barack Obama

Friend or foe?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 March, 2008, 12:00am

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It could be said that the remaining US presidential candidates all have their own unique Asian experience. Republican nominee John McCain spent six years as a prisoner of war in the torture chambers of the notorious 'Hanoi Hilton' prison, and Democrat contender Barack Obama spent four years of his childhood living in the Jakarta suburb of Menteng. His rival, Hillary Clinton, had a front-row seat to regional diplomatic shifts during her eight years in the White House as first lady.

To varying extents, their experiences have helped frame their core political makeup. A moderate pragmatist, Senator McCain displayed moral and political courage by leading efforts over many years to end the official enmity and private bitterness between Vietnam and the US - a drive now bearing fruit as the two countries broaden and deepen their increasingly strategic relationship. The prison where he was kept is now a museum and Senator McCain is a welcome guest on Hanoi streets.

Senator Obama's well-travelled childhood - between the age of six and 10 he lived in the villa of his Indonesian stepfather and went to local schools - is a reflection of his unusual if thoroughly modern background. The son of a white American mother and a Kenyan father, both academics, Senator Obama also grew up in the tolerant ethnic melting pot of Hawaii. He has repeatedly spoken of the value of experiencing different cultures in his youth, saying it 'formed an integral part of my world view and a basis for values I hold dear'.

Should Senator Clinton succeed, she will take office as something of a known quantity in Asia, already familiar to many leaders and diplomats after years of official travel with husband, former US president Bill Clinton - trips that ranged from the annual Apec forums to the landmark women's conference in Beijing in 1995.

For all that, regional issues have barely surfaced in a campaign dominated by the quagmire of Iraq and a deeply troubled economy. Detailed Asia policy is conspicuous by its absence on the rivals' websites. Regional diplomats and Washington political operatives know, however, that such a situation could change overnight, given the shifting tensions of a campaign.

A host of China-related issues - trade, human rights or military transformation - represent a political tinderbox while the nuclear recalcitrance of North Korea's regime could easily force its way into open debate. And the presidential race has not even started yet, warn Washington insiders.

All three hopefuls are honing policy approaches to Asia in anticipation of greater domestic and international scrutiny ahead. They have all quietly recruited top-shelf advisers on the region.

Washington sources say Senator McCain can tap counsel from former secretary of state Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, while Senator Clinton receives help from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke. Newcomer Senator Obama has a close rapport with Mr Clinton's former national security adviser Tony Lake and his predecessor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served former president Jimmy Carter. Senator Obama has also attracted his own share of Clinton-era Pentagon and State Department advisers.

With the focus largely on other issues, the candidates have so far proven relatively broad on regional issues and staying within what could be termed conventional Washington wisdom. All three recognise the need for a broader and deeper engagement with China as a cornerstone of Asia policy - but not at the expense of other traditional alliances and friendships, such as Japan, South Korea and India.

In different ways, all three assert the need for a more vigorous American diplomacy given the damage to the primacy of US leadership after eight controversial years of President George W. Bush.

East Asia could play a big part in the post-election push as the winner seeks to make up for perceptions of lost ground in the region. Wherever senior US envoys appear in the region these days, they are forced to publicly counter claims that Washington has turned away from East Asia in place of other more pressing priorities, such as Iraq.

There are important differences, of course. Senator McCain is hawkish and has extensive experience in security issues. He can be expected to confront issues such as China's military build-up and the need for more action from North Korea on ridding itself of nuclear weapons. Yet, as his Vietnam engagement showed, he is a moderate Republican able to sustain a flexible, highly nuanced position.

Senator Clinton, meanwhile, has gone further than the others in stating that the US-China relationship will define the 21st century - a line she has since repeatedly qualified, talking up the Japan-US security alliance that keeps Washington the largest military power in Asia. That alliance 'must continue to provide the foundation for America's policy in the Asia-Pacific', she said.

Significantly, she has also revealed protectionist instincts on trade as she tries to secure her blue-collar support base against the insurgent Senator Obama. Her moves to question free-trade policies - trumpeted by Senator McCain - have forced Senator Obama to question the fairness of free-trade deals, and the situation is now being closely watched by regional diplomats and business analysts. Senator Obama remains a free-trader at heart, his officials say.

the three, Senator Obama is the least known in the region. Regional governments are building a picture of the charismatic, eloquent senator from Illinois. Already, senior US-based Chinese diplomats have met him on several occasions, talking with him about China's role in Africa and other regional issues. He has courted Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and is soon expected to meet Japanese and Korean envoys. 'Those who have met him walk away simply stunned at his grasp of the region and his intelligence,' said one Asian diplomat. 'The word is: he's got it ... drive, judgment and charm.'

One Washington source who is very familiar with Senator Obama's approach to Asia, said this week the candidate was seeking to offer a significant change in presidential tone and style in his dealings with regional leaders - part of his wider effort to rebuild US diplomacy.

While strengthening and broadening traditional alliances and engaging new potential regional friends across a deeper range of issues, Senator Obama would offer a distinct alternative to the unilateralism of the Bush era.

He would also seek to display a new American 'humility' - something that may also set him apart from his rivals for the White House. 'Whether we are talking to friends and allies or more difficult regimes, we need to show we are listening as part of that engagement. Obama is very serious about this,' said the source.

'That humility doesn't mean he doesn't want to lead. If anything, it means that he wants our leadership on issues to be more responsive, realistic and respected. I think we are talking about a marked change in tone and style ... he's a reconciler. We are confident regional leaders will come to respect his integrity ... it is something that is at the core of his political makeup.'

Specifically, Senator Obama was unlikely to be revolutionary in his approach to East Asia, the source said. Allies such as South Korea and Japan can expect plenty of attention and respect while he has repeatedly stressed a view of China as both competitor and potential partner. 'There is nothing starry-eyed in his approach to China,' he said. Beijing can also expect Senator Obama to attempt to deepen relationships in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Senator Obama has stated that he wants to ensure China plays by international rules - an approach expected to bring plenty of firm engagement in areas such as trade, the environment and a developing military relationship. He is unlikely to rock any boats over policy on Taiwan. The creation of a meaningful forum to help manage increasingly complex security issues in East Asia - which lacks any formal regional architecture - is a specific priority for Senator Obama.

While he has courted controversy in the primaries by vowing to meet the leaders of rogue nations, any dealings with North Korea are likely to be aligned with goals such as South Korea and Japan. 'He is serious about creating a more meaningful engagement, not simply about diplomacy at all costs,' said the source. 'He is going to want to see results on denuclearisation.'

Other analysts note he will attempt to turn his relative inexperience on hard Asian policy into a virtue in coming weeks and months. 'He comes to Asia without baggage or policy ideas rooted in the past. The others you could say are fighting old battles. Obama knows that is not the case with him, and he wants to make that count.'