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What Asia wants from the next U.S. president

The wish list includes continued security aid to balance China, greater engagement, and trade.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 8, 2008


Completing a final lap of Asia, President Bush arrived here Thursday for the opening of the Summer Olympics. Earlier in the day, he chided the Olympic host for its curbs on religious freedom and human rights, but said the United States and China had built a "constructive relationship" during his tenure.

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Many policymakers in the region, however, are looking ahead to the next White House occupant and how his agenda will ripple across the Pacific Ocean. The winning candidate will become the commander in chief of the dominant military power in the Asia-Pacific region at a time when US leadership on trade, aid, and security is seen as wavering.

Into the new president's in-box will go the need to juggle complex relations with a newly assertive China, while reassuring allies that the US security umbrella remains intact, say analysts. That includes much of Southeast Asia, whose sea lanes supply the bulk of oil imports to Asia's largest economies, including China.

"For most countries in Southeast Asia, though some say it more openly than others, the US is the most important security partner in the region, the key balancer in the region, and they won't want to see any lessening of that role," says Ian Storey, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Asia wants greater US engagement

On the region's wish list, say analysts, is a deeper commitment from the next US president to exploring global ways of tackling thorny issues, from trade protectionism to energy security and curbing nuclear proliferation. For Asia, this means a stronger US presence at regional forums that the Bush administration has overlooked as it focuses on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Opinion leaders in Asia and the US share common ground on this point, says Douglas Bereuter, president of the Asia Foundation, which canvassed views on US policy toward Asia for a report due later this month. "There is a general view that American influence in Asia is ... declining, and both sides of the Pacific suggest that the next administration needs to focus on a strong US presence in Asia and to convey [its commitment] clearly" to the region, he says.

Beyond Iraq, neither Sen. John McCain nor Sen. Barack Obama has laid out detailed foreign-policy goals; nor do policymakers in Asia appear to expect them to at this point. Both candidates can, however, draw on their personal experiences in the region, under very different circumstances. For Senator McCain, it was 1960s wartime combat and capture in Vietnam and diplomatic reconciliation in the 1990s. For Senator Obama, it was grade school in Indonesia from 1967 to 1971, a period that overlaps with McCain's imprisonment in a Hanoi jail.

Bush's speech on Asia policy

• '[O]ver the past seven years, America has pursued four broad goals in the region: to reinvigorate our alliances, to forge new relationships with countries that share our values, to seize new opportunities for prosperity and growth, and to confront shared challenges together.

• 'A peaceful and successful future for this region requires the strong involvement of both China and the United States.'