Home Commentaries
Dear Mr Obama, Don't Forget Asia

Updated On: Jan 20, 2009

ANTICIPATION grows as Mr Barack Obama’s inauguration as United States President on Jan 20 approaches.

Across the country, and indeed the world, his message of change esonates even as an exhausted Bush administration exits from office amid a global economic crisis and American entanglement in two wars.

But what about the new administration’s engagement with Asia? Asia has not featured strongly on the campaign trail or in the run-up to the inauguration. Yet, Asia represents a new and necessary dimension in America’s foreign engagements.

Even as President Obama and his team begin their work, they must understand that in the eight years the Democrats have been out of the Oval Office, Asia has grown immeasurably.

The region’s growth is not just in economic terms. Asians have a growing confidence to deal with their own issues and contribute to global governance.

Mr Obama has talked about being more multilateral and must recognise that the global community now has more stakeholders than the established powers of Europe and Japan. New forms of global governance and new ways of engaging rising Asian powers will be critical for success.

Asia policy can no longer be a tidy box of simple, bilateral relationships. There is a need to see broader implications for the region and on global regimes. A central challenge will be to link Asia policy with priority global issues.

Take ties with China, for example. These have matured, despite differences over issues like Tibet and the buildup of the Chinese armed forces. On other fronts including North Korea and the cross-straits issues, the two countries have learnt to manage their co-existence and shown the ability to cooperate pragmatically.

Next steps will be to engage China in stabilising the global financial system and helping the global economy recover. There is also great opportunity for the two countries to share lessons on dealing with climate change.

India’s case is similar. Many in India acclaim President George W Bush as the first American President to recognise India’s stature. His initiative to go outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to recognize India a nuclear power is celebrated. But this can be a mixed blessing.

There is concern the NPT has been sacrificed in the process. Now, states like North Korea and Iran have more room to say that they too, like India, should be exceptions to the nuclear club rules.

The close US-India relationship will also need to be adroitly triangulated with relations with an unstable and prickly Pakistan, and the new Afghanistan initiative Mr Obama has promised.

Can this be done? Much depends on the ability of the new administration to coordinate policies beyond the “stove pipes” of narrow compartmentalisation between what are global issues as opposed to issues limited to particular Asian countries.

The new Asia team will also need to capture the attention of the President at critical junctures to understand Asian perspectives, even as he grapples with pressing domestic and global priorities.

At present, the Obama team on Asia centres on two key names: Mr Jeff Bader, who will be National Security Council Senior Director for Asia, and Mr Kurt Campbell is State Department Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Both are experienced former officials, presently with think-tanks.

Old hands in Asia

Mr Bader is said to be the key Obama adviser on Asia, and knows China very well, having led negotiations on China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Early on, he was a political officer in Beijing and worked on the response to the Tiananmen Square incident. Mr Bader later became the State Department China director, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs and director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

After some 27 years in administration, he left to head the Thornton Centre on China at the Brookings Institution think-tank.

Mr Kurt Campbell, although younger, has also served in several capacities in government. Best known among these was his stint as the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asia and the Pacific during the Clinton administration.

After leaving government, he was with well-known think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, before co-founding the Centre for New American Security.

Both are well regarded by other USbased experts for their intellect and experience on Asian issues. Mr Bader is said to be “extremely talented”, pragmatic and open-minded, which could assist him in new thinking about Asia. And there is hope Mr Campbell can help coordinate Asia policy between State and the Pentagon.

A third and prominent name that may feature could be Mr Richard Holbrooke. Tough, sharp-minded and outspoken, he was President Bill Clinton’s Ambassador to the United Nations, and it was he who hammered out the Dayton Peace Accords. The media is speculating that Mr Holbrooke may serve as special adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This is an especially tricky assignment, critical to both the American interests and the wider South Asia. Mr Holbrooke, currently chairman of the Asia Society, has been deeply engaged on Afghanistan in these past years, and was highly critical of the Bush administration’s inattention to this “forgotten war”.

Relationships depend not only on having a new or the right policies. Success, or failure, often rides on the people driving the policies. Mr Obama’s choices for key officeholders has, on the whole, added to the sense of optimism.  The reputation of the team selected for Asia adds to that. But a difficult agenda lies ahead for the new President, and even the best and the brightest will be challenged.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in the US for 2009 and chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Related Article