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.
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.
To some extent, say analysts who track the region, Asia's economic strength and political stability, with the exception of Afghanistan and Pakistan, justifies a hands-off approach. Leaders in Asia are on the alert for any hawkish speeches on China, whose rise is reshaping Asia's balance of power. But recent history suggests that despite Bush's latest barbs toward Beijing, pragmatism may win out over campaign rhetoric when it comes to engaging China.
"Both Bush and Clinton, when they came in, tended to be hard-liners vis-à-vis China and critical of the preceding administration for being too soft on China. Then they would have a better and more civil relationship," says Han Sung-Joo, chairman of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
One pressing issue that Bush's successor is certain to inherit is North Korea's nuclear programs. Even if the dismantling of Pyongyang's main nuclear plant goes smoothly, concerns over the global proliferation of nuclear technology will remain, says Mr. Han, a co-chair of the Asia Foundation report.
US officials have talked up the possibility of turning the six-nation forum on North Korea into a permanent security mechanism for the region, to the chagrin of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which hosts an annual security summit of 17 countries, including the US, European Union, and China. Analysts say the US would be seen as more cooperative if it supported this and other multilateral initiatives, despite their fledgling status.
US weaker on trade
Trade is a key agenda item in Asia, though expectations for US leadership are low. In South Korea, which Bush visited Wednesday, uproar over US beef imports has put President Lee Myung Bak on the defensive and drawn a cloud over a US-Korea free-trade deal. The trade pact would be the largest by potential volume signed by the US since NAFTA.
Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Asia Foundation, argues that failure to cement the pact could weaken the two countries' alliance – at a time when South Korea is seeking a greater global role, including more foreign aid and multilateral peacekeeping missions. That has implications for US allies in Asia that are increasingly drawn into China's economic orbit.
"By enhancing mutual economic cooperation with the United States, South Korea hedges against economic dependency on China ... as regional trading arrangements are increasingly shaped by the centripetal pull of China's economic growth," Mr. Snyder wrote in a unpublished commentary.
Analysts say the next US president may have less clout to push back against protectionism, as a weak domestic economy bites hard. Last week, the Doha round of World Trade Organization ended without a deal after China and India dug in their heels over cuts in food import tariffs sought by US and European negotiators.
"Not only have the Doha talks collapsed, but for the US, any kind of free-trade deal seems well nigh impossible. So I see the US room for maneuver in the international sphere becoming more and more restricted," says Christopher McNally, a research fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.