America's priorities in Asia

Asia, the world’s most populous and dynamic region, where U.S. President-elect Barack Obama spent part of his youth, didn’t loom large in the 2008 presidential campaign. But while the new president may want to focus on domestic matters, Asia will inevitably impinge on his new government.

Security: The new president will face two important security issues soon after taking office. The most immediate, of course, is the deteriorating situation on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea recently closed its border with South Korea and has told inspectors at the Yongbyon nuclear center that they cannot take samples out of the country.

Obama publicly supported the recent Bush initiative to remove North Korea from the State Department’s list of terrorist states. The quid pro quo, a formal verification agreement, may be signed before Obama takes office in January putting that headache behind him. But in any case he will have to pick up from where the Bush administration left off.

The concern in Seoul is that a President Obama is more likely to accelerate normalization with Pyongyang, in part because he does not have to contend with opposition from the more conservative elements of his party. He may have a two-track program of normalization and disarmament. The Director of American Affairs at the North Korean Foreign Ministry, Li Gun, is in New York and says, “We’re ready to deal.”

One of the intriguing questions is whether Obama will meet with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il. During the long primary and general election campaign Obama promised to meet personally with even leaders of rogue nations without preconditions. South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak has said he would not oppose a Kim-Obama summit meeting.

It is unclear, however, if Kim will be in any position to meet with Obama or anyone else. Much speculation surrounds the state his health and rumors that he has suffered a stroke. That brings the potential for another flash point during an Obama administration: how to deal with a collapsing, post-Kim North Korea.

Sometime during 2009 President Obama may become the first American president to have to deal with a Japanese government headed by a political party other than the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has governed Japan as a consistent partner with the US almost without interruption for more than 60 years. That could have consequences for security relations and Japan’s commitments on the War on Terror.

Prime Minister Taro Aso must call for a general election sometime during 2009, and it is far from certain he can win it, despite the LDP’s current overwhelming majority in parliament. The LDP, stretching Japan’s pacifistic constitution to the limit, has sent air force units to Iraq and a naval oiler to the Indian Ocean (whose mission was extended a year this month) to replenish Coalition warships. The lower house did approve extension of refueling mission but the opposition has flipped again, and now will delay although that could change again.

As Obama has said he wants more focus put on Afghanistan, Japan may come under pressure to ante up more support exactly at a time when the government passes into the hands of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which opposes the refueling mission and other military assistance not specifically authorized by the U.N.

On Taiwan Obama has endorsed the most recent sale of armaments to Taiwan. The $6.5 billion package announced in early October includes 30 Apache attack helicopters, 330 advanced patriot missiles and other armaments. A Democratic Party delegation is expected to visit Taipei later this month to attend a “seminar”.

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Alliance Maintenance: The Japanese worry incessantly that Washington will “tilt” toward China under a Democratic administration. One of the easiest things Obama can do to reassure them of an even-handed policy is to appoint a prominent American as ambassador. Japanese are used to being flattered by the appointment of prominent politicians to Tokyo. In recent years the embassy has been headed by a former vice president, a former speaker of the House of Representatives and two ex-majority leaders from the Senate.

A good move would be to name someone like former Sen. Tom Daschle or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (both of whom have joined the government in other capacities) to Tokyo, or, even better if he can be persuaded, former vice president Al Gore. Although such an appointment is highly unlikely, the latter would be hugely welcomed in Tokyo because of his commitment to fighting global warming. Japan takes global warming very seriously and is proud that it hosted the Kyoto protocols.

The U.S. alliance with South Korea has been strained by the fact the two country’s politics are out of sync. During most of the Bush administration Blue House was occupied by left-of-center president, while the U.S. presidency was held by a conservative. Now that the U.S. has elevated a left-of-center president, South Korean has turned conservative with the election last December of Lee.

Nonetheless, there has been progress in enhancing the alliance by removing large American military bases out of heavily populated areas around Seoul. By contrast, efforts to lower the military “foot print” on Okinawa are stalled. The number of American troops stationed in South Korea is now down to 28,500 and may be reduced further under Obama.

Trade Policy: All eyes in Asia will be focused on Obama’s emerging trade policy amidst concern over his commitment to free trade and the Democratic Party’s propensity to embrace protectionism. This is standard for any incoming Democratic administration.

A key early indication of the new administration’s trade policy toward Asia will be its position on possibly renegotiating the Free Trade Agreement with South Korea (barring the unlikely event that the agreement is ratified by a lame-duck Congress.) In the campaign Obama criticized past FTA agreements, and may strike a tougher position in future negotiations over environmental, labor, intellectual property concerns and greater access to American products.

Earlier this year Seoul was engulfed with major anti-government demonstrators protesting sections of the agreement opening the South Korean market to American beef. Meanwhile, many in Congress are dissatisfied with provisions for sales of America-made automobiles. These and other trade disputes could sour relations between Seoul and Washington under Obama early on.

During the campaign Obama criticized China for manipulating its currency to encourage exports and for its rising trade imbalance. But these concerns are expected to be vastly overshadowed by the realization that a stable and vital Chinese economy is essential if the world is to pull out of an impending economic recession.

Like others in Asia, Japanese worry about Obama’s trade policy, but the number of actual disputes between the two countries has diminished considerably now that Japan accounts for only about 10 percent of America’s overall trade deficit. Tokyo will resist pressure to lift restrictions on beef imports, especially amidst the steady media drumbeat of food scandals, mostly Chinese-made.

Japan’s automobile industry is wondering what an Obama administration would do to prop up teetering American car makers and how it will impact competition. Toshiba, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and other nuclear equipment suppliers are concerned that the construction of new nuclear plants they are counting on building in the U.S. may languish under Obama.