WASHINGTON: Barack Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, John McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and Hillary Clinton joked she was delighted to be a “Senator from Punjab.” All three US senators jostling to win the White House have striking connections to Asia.
They have pledged to strengthen US ties in the region through partnerships, which experts said could help repair the badly undermined US reputation following incumbent President George W. Bush’s 2003 decision to go to war in Iraq.
Obama and former First Lady Clinton, vying to be Democratic flagbearer in the election, and Republican presumptive nominee John McCain however have not spelt out their approaches to specific foreign policy questions, in debates or on the campaign trail.
The 46-year-old Obama, who could become the first black American president, wants to forge “a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits, and ad hoc arrangements.”
Obama, who lived with his late Kansas-born mother and stepfather in Indonesia when he was six to 10 years old, also wished to maintain “strong ties with US allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.
All three candidates see China, which is confronting US influence in Asia with its rising military power and rapidly growing economy, as a central challenge.
Obama wants China to “play by the rules” while McCain calls for a halt to Beijing’s efforts to establish regional forums and economic arrangements “designed to exclude” the United States from Asia.
Clinton said the United States “must stand ready to challenge China when its conduct was at odds with US vital interests.”
The New York senator, who claims to have had extensive foreign policy and national security experience in her husband Bill Clinton’s White House, also underlined India’s “special significance” both as an emerging power and the world’s most populous democracy and the need for it to be given “an augmented voice” in regional and international institutions, such as the United Nations.
Clinton, 61, who could become the first woman US president, enjoys strong ties with Indian Americans and once drew laughter at a fundraising event when she said, “I am delighted to be the Senator from Punjab as well as from New York.”
McCain, the 71-year-old Vietnam War hero who spent years languishing in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp, said his “lessons of teamwork and sacrifice” during his incarceration had made him a “better man.”
“We Americans must lead by example and encourage the participation of the rest of the world, including most importantly, the developing economic powerhouses of China and India,” he said.
Despite their assertions, however, none of the three candidates is expected to make sweeping US policy changes on Asia, experts said.
“I think it would be very surprising if you saw a dramatic change of US policy toward most of the countries of Asia,” said Robert Hathaway, an Asian expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“However, there would be much less of the cowboy rhetoric that had characterized the current administration and much greater commitment to working with partners rather than going it alone and far greater efforts to display a sensitivity to the views of other peoples, other cultures, other religions,” he said.
The American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, “regardless of their relative merits, have unquestionably poisoned America’s standing among Asia’s 900 million Muslims, from Pakistan to the Philippines and all points in between,” said US-based Asia Society President Vishakha Desai.
In an open list of questions posed to the three candidates, Desai asked how they will “engage” Muslims in Asia and garner support at home for stronger ties with Muslims overseas.
She also wanted them to declare upfront whether they would “back—or back away from—free trade pacts with Asia” and whether they saw Asian acquisitions of valuable US-owned economic assets a “positive development or potential peril”