The Candidates and the Asian Century

By Richard Halloran

Sometimes people from outside the United States have views of American elections that are, at the least, different those of Americans and, more often, illuminating.

So it was this week with Kim Beazley, Australia’s onetime defense minister, deputy prime minister, and leader of the Labor Party now in power under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Beazley said that Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, and Senator Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent, might use similar words on US foreign policy but “the underlying premises and approaches might not be exactly the same.”

In an address at the East-West Center, Beazley asserted that McCain’s view “is an extension in the new era of essentially the Cold War approach. That approach was about building structures to advance Western interests and contain potential military and ideological threats.”

In contrast, Beazley told a luncheon audience at the research and educational center in Honolulu, “Obama is the first presidential candidate free of intellectual involvement in that world [of the Cold War].” Beazley, who spoke before the scheduled McCain-Obama debate on foreign policy, suggested that Obama was problem-oriented, identifying an issue, then engaging partners to find a solution.

For Australia, long an ally of the US, the distinction was important, Beazley said. “Australia wants the US to extend priority to engaging the challenges by what is undoubtedly the Asian century,” he said. A McCain presidency would accept Australia for the ally it has been. An Obama presidency would require Australia to work harder to demonstrate its relevance to resolving problems.

Beazley, a jovial, outgoing politician who was careful not to take sides in the American election, said both candidates gave priority to the struggle with Islamic fundamentalist terror. Moreover, “the new president will confront massive fiscal issues,” regardless of who is elected and that may require that budgets for defense capabilities be cut.

Beazley was in Honolulu for the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, an off-the-record gathering of political leaders, defense and foreign policy specialists, and scholars who advocate close relations between the two nations. He is slated to become chancellor of Australia National University in January.

“Both candidates have said things about the Australian relationship we couldn’t fault,” Beazley said. In foreign policy objectives, he said, they “have reached toward the views being put forward by elder statesmen such as George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Senator Nunn.” Schultz and Kissinger were Republican secretaries of state, William Perry a Democratic secretary of defense, and Sam Nunn a leading Democratic authority on defense.

Beazley contended, however, that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had recently set “a subtle new direction” in security posture that McCain or Obama would inherit as president. “The strategic dynamic of the Asia-Pacific region is being driven by the ways in which the previously dominant power, the US, and the rising powers of China, India, and Japan are educating each other,” Beazley said.

The Australian said he was fascinated by Gates’s claim that the US has become a “resident power” in the western Pacific. He quoted Gates as saying “there is sovereign American territory in the western Pacific from the Aleutian Islands all the way down to Guam,” the island 1800 miles east of China, a potential rival of the US in that region.

Officers at the US Pacific Command’s headquarters in Honolulu said senior Chinese naval officers have told Admiral Timothy Keating, the Pacific Commander, that they planned to build aircraft carriers in the near future. When those warships are ready for sea duty, the Chinese said, perhaps the US should withdraw to the eastern Pacific while China patrolled the western Pacific.

Keating, the officers said, politely but firmly responded that the US would not retire from the western Pacific.

Beazley did little to conceal an Australian fear, one shared by most American allies in Asia and the Pacific, that the new administration in Washington would turn its back on them in favor of Europe and the Middle East. “It behooves Australia,” Beazley said, “to devote particular intellectual effort to ensure that the increasing value of the alliance to its partner is not unnecessarily diminished.”

He took heart in that “McCain and Obama are men of the Pacific.” Beazley noted that Senator Obama was born in Hawaii and spent his childhood here and in Indonesia. For Senator McCain, “Hawaii was a staging point for the toughest conceivable crucible of an education in the region’s affairs as a fighter and prisoner of war in Vietnam.”

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