Barack Obama's US foreign policy on Asia

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Updated June 5, 2008 11:18:49

US Senator Barack Obama has secured the Democratic nomination for the US presidency. But many say he's lack of foreign policy experience may be the clincher on polling day in November. We discuss his agenda on Asia.

Presenter: Linda LoPresti
Speaker: Keith Suter, honorary associate at the department of politics and international relations at Sydney's Macquarie University.

LOPRESTI: Keith Suter Barack Obama is the Democrats nomination for US president. If Asia could vote in this US election would it be for Obama?

SUTER: I think it probably would be for Obama, but you shouldn't completely write off John McCain, but McCain offers stability, at least you know where you stand. Barack Obama represents a completely fresh challenge. So for some of the Asian leaders it would be rather unsettling to have this young man coming into power, very little experience in foreign affairs. He's not been able to demonstrate how he would handle a major crisis. Whereas at least with Senator McCain he's well known, he's made it clear, his views clear on Iraq etc. So it'd be almost a softer and gentler version of the Bush administration. Barack Obama, who knows?

LOPRESTI: Yet on a personal level it seems he's incredibly popular in Southeast Asia, I mean there was a recent conference in Indonesia where policy leaders from across Asia voted Obama as their preferred candidate for US president. Now we know he lived in Indonesia as a child, but why do you believe he is so warmly embraced? Is it because he is the antithesis of George W. Bush?

SUTER: I think that has a lot to do with it, so he's someone who opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, so he's very clear in that regard. But also he's young, he's non-white and he has Hussein as a middle name. Now that sends out all sorts of fresh signals, particularly as people I think have got rather tired with the neo-conservative go it alone unilateralist agenda followed by the Bush administration. So there may be a feeling that they would have a less arrogant person in the White House, one more willing to speak to Asians as equals rather than as superior.

LOPRESTI: In terms of US foreign policy we know that Barack Obama opposes the war in Iraq. We don't know much about his position on North Korea for example, but it was only last year that he said that he didn't support Bush-Cheney policies of not talking to leaders that we don't like. Do you think that means that we'll see him talking to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il?

SUTER: I think it would ultimately lead to that situation. The Americans for the best part of 20 years have had a carrot and stick approach, so under Clinton they were going for the carrot approach, including the creation of a civilian nuclear reactor. Under Bush, Bush said well we're going to go for the stick approach because being polite and civil doesn't work with the North Koreans. Clearly after eight years that approach hasn't worked either. So I think it would be opportune for Barack Obama just to try to reopen negotiations, and to cash in on the fact that he does represent this new face in American foreign policy and therefore might perhaps be able to find ways of opening up with North Korea.

LOPRESTI: And other countries perhaps because on his own website he says that in terms of Asia if he becomes president he will seek new partnerships in Asia, ones that go beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits and ad hoc arrangements. Do you think that means that if he wins the presidency Asia will have a much more accessible US president?

SUTER: I think Asia is going to have a much higher position on the American radar screen no matter who becomes president. The mere fact that China and India are the two rising economic super powers will force Asian affairs much more onto the American radar screen. And so I think that whoever does become president will need to give far more attention to China. I think the big difference would be that Barack Obama has shown a capacity to build coalitions, to be a good networker, and so his approach I think would be less adversarial with the Chinese and with the Indians. And so I should imagine that they would prefer to have him in the White House.

LOPRESTI: Well what about al Qaeda? I mean he says that he will finish the fight against al Qaeda which is quite a bold statement but given the number of hardline Islamic groups across Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines, Pakistan and Afghanistan, how realistic do you think that vision is of his of finishing off al Qaeda and do you think he can make a dent on the so-called war on terror?

SUTER: The problem with the war on terror is it's open-ended, how do you know when you've won? When Osama is found to be dead? Very different from World War One, World War Two, you knew when you'd won those wars. In this new war on terror it is open-ended; it could run for another 30 years. What I would hope from Barack Obama being a new president means that you can reinvent things. My hope is that he would drop this phrase war on terror, perhaps specifically saying our target is al Qaeda, or it will be Jemaah Islamiah. That way you will get a clearer indication was to whether or not you're winning by the way in which you're able to wipe out those particular specific groups. A general phrase like war on terror, though it may well have gone well over in the media in 2001 has been a disaster in a military sense.