Watching and waiting

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 November, 2008, 12:00am

The US presidential campaign was closely watched by the rest of the world because something inspiring is happening. It was hard to conceive just a year ago that a black person could be selected as a presidential candidate. The Democratic Party elite initially favoured Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was set to make history as the first woman candidate. However, the long and complex series of mind-numbing primaries and caucuses enabled the party's rank and file to defy the elite and launch Barack Obama to fight for the presidency. The rank and file of the Republican Party backed John McCain - the party's maverick - to represent them; he was never the favourite of the party's elders. The process produced upsets in both parties, adding extra spice to the race.

Senator McCain's choice of a running mate provided a show-stopping moment. While Senator Obama chose Joe Biden, a long-standing senator with substantial foreign affairs experience, Senator McCain produced Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, who was an unknown to most Americans, never mind the rest of the world. Questions surfaced immediately about her suitability, which dogged the final stages of their campaign.

There have been some commentaries in this newspaper about how Asians looked at the two candidates and their running mates. One view was that the Asian elite feels more comfortable with the Republicans, while polls indicated a fascination with Senator Obama. The Democrats were seen to be protectionist on trade. Some people also said Beijing had not been unhappy with the George W. Bush administration because America had become unpopular around the world and was significantly weaker as a superpower, giving opportunities for China's rise in global affairs. With the US in a deep financial crisis, Pax Americana could not last for much longer, especially as Americans are broke and not prepared to pay for superpower status with higher taxes to get out of the mess. Therefore, more of the same Bush-type bravado or inward-looking policies would suit China just fine.

How will Senator Obama, the president-elect, conduct himself in the coming days? Asians will be watching and listening intently. He is receiving congratulation messages and calls from leaders around the world. These are opportunities for Senator Obama to send signals on how he will deal with the world. Will we see bold leadership that promotes stability and peace? A new administration provides a fresh start for everyone.

In Hong Kong, we will be particularly interested in his attitude towards China. Likewise, people throughout Asia will be asking how the new president will conduct policy in this region.

China represents both a risk and an opportunity for the US. The two countries' political systems and the values that underpin them cannot be more different. China is a one-party state, where the Communist Party is organised on Leninist lines and the undoubted powerhouse in every sphere of public life. Party elections are usually pre-cooked events.

The US is a democracy, where individual freedom and universal suffrage remain at the core of its politics. Election results are never certain ahead of time. The two countries view each other with a fair amount of suspicion, with China feeling its rise poses a threat to America's world power dominance and that the US will do what it can to thwart Chinese efforts.

Nevertheless, both recognise that they must also be special partners. America still has enormous influence in the world. China is clearly a rising power that has arrived on the world stage and has begun to assert itself by being actively engaged in world affairs. Chinese leaders prefer a peaceful world that will help China continue to develop and bring prosperity to its people.

We want America and China to exercise power wisely. We want them to work together to deal with global issues, including security, energy and climate change. We are waiting to hear what the new US president will say to China and how he will position himself in this vital but challenging relationship.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange