Obama likely to set minds at rest in Asia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2009, 12:00am

US president-elect Barack Obama's now bloated rhetoric of 'hope' and 'change' means different things depending on where you sit.

In the US, for example, many people hope that he will be able to bring the change that he has promised, given eight years of a failed presidency and a bitterly divided political arena.

Across East Asia, however, there is a different twist. Many governments hope that he will not represent too much change.

The strategic assumptions guiding America's role in the region have been forged over decades. And while they might be shifting, in part due to China's rise, nobody seems in the mood for dramatic changes, whether it is an old ally, like Japan or South Korea, or the mainland.

Even before his triumph on November 4, regional envoys were peppering his team with one simple question: 'What precisely does Barack Obama mean by change?'

Even before he enters office, some are breathing easier. Many signals suggest Mr Obama will be governing from the centre, all part of his inclusive concepts of a new American patriotism and pro-engagement foreign policies.

(Trade, however, is less than clear, with both his own rhetoric and the deepening sense of crisis surrounding the US economy raising fears of a new protectionist order. US presidents of all shades, however, have a habit of being pragmatic on this score, too).

News of the first major appointments by his new secretary of state, former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, is also putting some minds at rest.

Clinton-era Pentagon official Kurt Campbell is slated to replace Christopher Hill as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs - the State Department's key official concentrating on the region.

Mr Hill's tenure has been dominated by the North Korean nuclear problem and the glacial six-nation effort to rid Pyongyang of its weapons.

Another envoy is likely to be handed that nasty task, freeing Dr Campbell to shore up US relations across northeast and southeast Asia, with China and Japan being priorities.

Dr Campbell is widely known as a highly intelligent and amiable official following his earlier Pentagon stint in the late 1990s.

He played a key role in boosting the Pentagon's military diplomacy, paving the way for a fledgling defence relationship with China while shoring up relations with Seoul and Tokyo.

It was a fraught period, with the bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade putting Sino-US ties on ice and fierce anti-China hawks in the US Congress determined to keep the Clinton administration on the ropes. Mr Campbell stuck to his pro-engagement guns throughout.

'He never lost his cool, despite considerable provocation,' said one Asian diplomat in Washington, familiar with Dr Campbell's shuttles between Capitol Hill and Beijing. 'He calmly and steadily won trust, happily handling every question.'

He has more recently been active on the Washington think-tank scene, including a long spell at the non-partisan Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

He also negotiated a period of intense debate in Washington about the precise nature of the US notion of 'strategic ambiguity' governing any US response to a threat on Taiwan, with some hawks wanting more explicit threats sent to Beijing.

The Taiwan Relations Act acknowledges Beijing sovereignty but stops short of obligating the US to defend the island.

Dr Campbell spoke of 'strategic clarity but tactical ambiguity', where Washington insisted upon peaceful reunification but did not precisely state the response if an attack was threatened. It was as delicate a configuration as any.

His work in the administration of president Bill Clinton means he will also have a direct line to his boss - another factor to ease minds across the region.