Commentary / World

Asia's questions for the next president

by Vishakha N. Desai

NEW YORK — In one of the longest American presidential campaigns in history, neither party has addressed one of the most critical issues of the day: How can the United States successfully integrate its domestic concerns with an increasingly competitive global marketplace?

At home and abroad, it is impossible to miss the breadth and depth of change sweeping the globe, particularly in Asia. While the U.S. economy is in the final stages of a seismic shift from manufacturing to service-oriented industries, China and India are ascendant, and Muslims throughout Asia are clamoring for a greater role in global affairs.

And yet the Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and the Republican nominee, John McCain, continue to tiptoe around such issues. Instead, their campaigns’ treatment of U.S. foreign policy has been reduced to endless debates about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and about the wisdom of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Surely this is unacceptable to every American committed to a safe and prosperous future. The next U.S. president needs to provide a clearer understanding of how he or she will prepare America for a 21st century in which local issues are tied to global developments, global trends can have local implications, and America’s international authority will confront Asia’s newfound clout.

With this in mind, here are five questions that should be posed to America’s presidential candidates:

Big construction firms and technology companies such as Microsoft, IBM, and Cisco Systems already have huge campuses in India. But now we see Asian companies beginning to acquire valuable U.S.-owned economic assets — witness India’s Tata Group’s proposed acquisition of Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford. Do you see foreign investment and acquisitions in America as a positive development or a potential peril?

America once defined free trade for the new global economy, but many Americans are now using demands for “fair trade” to impose reactionary and protectionist trade policies. As Democrats suggest renegotiating NAFTA, Asian countries are watching with increasing trepidation.

South Korea, in particular, is left to wonder whether the U.S. is serious about pursuing similar trade agreements with one of Asia’s strongest economies and one of America’s oldest regional allies. Will you back — or back away from — free trade pacts with Asia?

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. A 2006 Pew poll found that support for the U.S. in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has plunged to around 30 percent. How will you engage Muslims in Asia, and how will you garner support at home for stronger ties with Muslims around the world?

The Asia Society recently co-presented a new education study that showed American 15-year-olds’ science proficiency ranked 25th out of 30 countries tested, and lagged far behind their peers in Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. Meanwhile, U.S. colleges and universities are struggling to attract the best and brightest minds from abroad, because those students — and their professors — are increasingly being denied U.S. visas or subjected to harrowing entry delays when they arrive.

Business leaders, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, have also complained about shortages of skilled workers, and have called for large increases in “H1-B” visas, which allow professionals to work in the U.S. for short periods of time. How will you help American students compete globally, while ensuring a level playing field at home for talented foreign students and workers?

Both China and India are demanding concessions from the U.S. before they will even consider caps on greenhouse-gas emissions. Are you willing to sacrifice some economic growth domestically — or, conversely, are you willing to jeopardize relations with China and India — for the sake of the environment?

America’s next president must re-engage with Asia not as an afterthought, and not as a corollary to the “war on terror,” but as a central component of a road map to a safe, secure, and prosperous future. He or she should start now by answering Asia’s questions.

Vishakha N. Desai is president of the Asia Society. Copyright 2008 Project Syndicate (