As is widely recognized by political observers worldwide, the US presidential contest of 2008 has gotten off to an extremely early start, figuratively representing not so much a long marathon, but a much more grueling and arduous full triathlon with many political tests of endurance and skill along the way.
At some point during this intense journey, presidential aspirants in the US will in all likelihood endeavor to lay out some specific guidelines or objectives in terms of Asia policy, but right now the focus is decidedly elsewhere, on fundraising, on building viable campaign machines, and on coming up with Iraq policies that stand a chance in both the upcoming primaries and later, in the general election.
The first two tasks are always difficult, but the latter is proving particularly daunting for the political field vying for the presidency in 2008.
One of the most frequently asked questions by keenly interested (and often anxious) Asian interlocutors currently is, "how do the various candidates see Asia and what might we expect in terms of policy differences among candidates?"
While this is a perfectly reasonable request, this question probably says more about the questioner than anything else.
Points of political transition in the US often conjure up deep uncertainties and concerns throughout Asian capitals in ways that many Americans simply do not understand.
While Europeans and others watch the US presidential contest with interest and often have strong views about preferred outcomes, Asia is in many ways unique and much more intense.
This is because of the US' unique role in many walks of Asian life -- the ultimate guarantor of peace and stability in Asia, the primary market for most Asian exports of consumer goods, and still the agenda setter for most matters of regional dialogue and discussion (despite China's enormous gains).
So, the barest utterances and offhand comments of presidential aspirants are scoured across Asia for meaning and nuance. Will this Democratic candidate support more protectionist policies?
Will that Republican contender continue a Middle East focus in foreign policy that overlooks the drama playing out in Asia? Despite the desire to neatly compartmentalize Democrats and Republicans into different boxes when it comes to policy approaches to Asia, the most obvious truth about US politics when it comes to Asia is that the most intense debates are often within the parties rather than between them.
For instance, the biggest differences over how best to approach China policy are currently found between moderate Republicans -- who believe China is the great market partner for the US and conservative Republicans -- who see the Middle Kingdom, in contrast, as perhaps the next great enemy of the US.
US foreign policy and national security debates currently are completely consumed by Iraq, and this preoccupation on the dire circumstances of the Middle East is decidedly bipartisan.
This focus on the chaos and ruin of US policy and what to do about it is likely to predominate in policy circles for years to come and will easily cast the longest shadow on the 2008 elections.
Nevertheless, it's perhaps not too early to sketch out at least some broad contours of likely policy approaches that may transcend party differences when it comes to the future of Asia in the coming campaign.
First, despite the general quiet successes of the Bush administration in Asia (good relations with both Japan and China, stronger bilateral ties with several key states, and leveraged cooperation from various Asian partners in the larger global struggle with terrorism), there is likely not to be an enthusiastic desire -- even among Republicans contenders -- to publicly embrace or call to continue with the Bush "vision " in Asia.
This is partly because of several factors -- an inexplicable policy failure to resolve internal differences over North Korea's nuclear challenge, a tragic demise in US-South Korean relations, a tendency to downplay the enormous recent advances of China's "soft" and "hard" power indicators, and the larger critique of a US preoccupation away from Asia at a time of enormous consequence in the region.
But the biggest reason will be Iraq itself; having bet his entire Presidency on Iraq and largely failed in the process, US President George W. Bush will not receive much credit in the short term for other international initiatives, even those in Asia that went relatively well.
Second, trade issues involving Asia will be more contentious.
Asians understand this clearly when it comes to Democrats, but they are less clear about trends on the Republican side.
Despite a reputation for promoting free trade, the six years between 2000-2006 with strong Republican majorities in both houses and a Republican in the White House, the advances in trade agreements were paltry -- a few politically significant but economically marginal bilateral free trade agreements is all.
Trade is becoming more contentious across the political spectrum in the US. Expect much more political discourse on the meaning of "free trade" and complex nature of the commercial relationship between Asia and the US in the days ahead.
Third, China will take on more significance. After the last election cycle in 2004 in which China played only a bit part, the coming political contest in the US is likely to see a much more intense and unpredictable debate about China policy.
The subject of this debate is likely to span the gamut of political concerns between the US and China, including strategic military anxieties, concerns over democracy and human rights, worries about trade imbalances and new areas of contention such as over what to do about climate change.
There are obvious elements of both cooperation and competition in Sino-US relations, but expect to hear more of the latter as the campaign heats up.
Fourth, there is virtually no talk this time around of "abandoning" Asia or cutting back on the US' security guarantees to the region.
Indeed, there is an increasing appreciation across the political spectrum that the maintenance of a US security role in Asia is of critical importance to the nation (an area that the Bush team deserves but is unlikely to receive much credit).
This is one area of good news for a coming political campaign that is likely to be one of the bitterest and harshly contested in modern history.
Despite Asian anxieties that their issues receive insignificant treatment, this time around it might be better to have an attitude of the less said the better (I will have more to say on Taiwan policy and the campaign in my next column).
Kurt Campbell is chief executive officer and cofounder of the Center for a New American Security.
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