Allan Gyngell, a former Australian diplomat and executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, says that there is considerable interest in who becomes the next U.S. president in Australia and countries in East Asia. There is concern, however, that the United States might retreat from its support for free trade policies around the world.
The United States of course is quite caught up with the current presidential primary campaigning, particularly for the Democratic Party nomination between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Has this attracted much attention in Australia and other parts of East Asia?
It certainly has. In every country in this part of the world and I suspect most countries in the world, the United States represents the parallel politics to your own national politics. So standing around barbecues and other social events you can hear Australians talking in the same way they would talk about Australian politics, stating their preferences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama or John McCain. That’s because the results of the U.S. elections matter so much to the rest of us.
In the United States unfortunately you would not have people standing around barbecues discussing John Howard [prime minister who lost the November 2007 election] or Kevin Rudd [new prime minister], I suppose.
That comes with the territory of being a superpower. You matter in a way that no other country matters and the consequences of your politics matter for the rest of us.
What is the American standing in Australia right now?
It depends on the prism that you look at this through. The Lowy Institute does annual public opinion surveys about what Australians think about the world. If you ask Australians about how important the United States alliance [the ANZUS treaty] is to Australian security, you still get very high figures—36 percent say it is very important, 27 percent that it’s fairly important. This is down a bit from 2005, but on the whole the support for the alliance remains very strong throughout the Australian community. No Australian political party in my view can be elected on a platform of hostility to the alliance. That’s one reason why Kevin Rudd was successful recently. He made it clear that although Australia and his government were withdrawing troops from Iraq he remained committed to the alliance. At that level it’s very strong.
“The United States represents the parallel politics to your own national politics. So standing around barbecues and other social events you can hear Australians talking in the same way they would talk about Australian politics, stating their preferences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama or John McCain.”
If you ask however about whether you personally feel favorable or unfavorable to the United States, 60 percent of Australians feel favorably, 40 percent unfavorable. When you push down on those numbers and ask people why they feel unfavorable to the United States, there is no doubt that President Bush is an element in this. Seventy percent say that the main reason they have an unfavorable opinion is because of President Bush. Only about 20 percent say that about Americans. So the unfavorable opinion seems to be anti-Bush rather than anti-American.
One of three people will be president come January of next year. Do Australians have a favorite; is there any way to tell?
There’s no way to tell you now. I’m sure there will be polling. I suspect that this is a purely subjective judgment, but I suspect that there would be more support for Obama and Clinton than for McCain, but that may be because there has been more publicity about the Democrat struggle for nomination than the Republicans. At the moment I am not aware of any polling done here. I think that all three are relatively popular. Australians would be generally happy with any of those three as the next president of the United States.
Let’s talk about policies and we can go beyond Australia. One thing that has struck me during the campaigning here is that virtually no one talks about Asia very much but there is a lot of talk about trade. Among the Democrats, free trade has become scorned. What would one like to see in a new administration on this subject?
For Australia, open rules in the international trading system is vitally important. As a country with our size, we don’t have the clout to enforce our views, so it’s very important to us. We’ve prospered under the open trading system. Free trade is very important to us. When we do polling for example, we don’t get anything like the same hostility to free trade that you get in the United States. That’s partly because we don’t have a very large manufacturing industry here that has been decimated in the way that the U.S. manufacturing has been.
“With China’s continuing emergence and India’s growing power, signs that the new administration is going to be interested in and prepared to play an active role will be welcome here.”
Trade is the biggest policy concern of the Australian government. It’s mostly being talked about at the levels of government and business and so on. But the signs of increasing protectionism in the United States are a worry for us because the global system can’t survive in a healthy state without the support that the United States has traditionally given it.
What about in other countries of East Asia—would you find similar sentiments or are there differences?
On the trade and protectionism front, there are very similar attitudes because this part of the world is most conscious of the values of globalization. No one wants to see that process reversed at all.
Are the candidates known in the area?
There is great excitement in Indonesia because Barack Obama lived in Jakarta as a child from the ages of six to ten. It would be a very unusual and welcome development to have an American president who knew Southeast Asia in a personal way. But in McCain of course as well, you have a man who through very different circumstances knows the area [he was a Navy carrier pilot shot down over North Vietnam and a prisoner of war for five and a half years] but still understands and has often visited since the war in Southeast Asia. There is an element of hope in Southeast Asia that there will be a new focus on this part of the world.
I guess McCain has made his peace with Vietnam since the war.
McCain has made his peace with Vietnam and that’s known and understood and welcomed. As you move north of course, the issues get larger and more significant for the longer run, and that’s the relationship between China and the United States, which is going to be one of the defining relationships of the next twenty five years, certainly. One of the Bush administration’s successes I think has been the way in which it’s dealt with Asia. This may be partly because it’s had its hands full in other parts of the world, but the way in which it’s dealt with China, with Taiwan, with Japan, with North Korea, has been very successful and widely welcomed in this part of the world. You don’t get a sense that there is anything about American policy in Asia that is in urgent need of rectification.
Regarding China, whoever is the next president is going to have to deal with a host of problems ranging from economic issues to the continuing concerns about China’s military and Tibet. Taiwan’s elections have eased tensions there at least for a while.
Yes, things are looking quite promising on Taiwan, but it’s a time when things are looking less promising on Tibet. With the Olympics coming up there is going to be a very heavy focus on Chinese policy. Australians have seen China until now as opportunity rather than as a threat. There’s very little sense in this country of China as a potential threat, either economically, or even in strategic terms. It’s going to be very interesting to see whether that continues.
On the Tibet issue, is there much of a Tibet campaign in Australia?
There’s quite a lot. We’ve got the Olympic torch arriving here in a couple of weeks and the expectations are that there will be demonstrations of the sort that you’ve seen elsewhere. Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, was in Beijing just as all this was breaking. He is of course is the first Western leader to speak Mandarin. He gave a very interesting talk at Peking University to a bunch of very bright Chinese students in Chinese in which he addressed directly the subject of human rights in Tibet. This was very warmly received in Australia. He was thought to have done a very good job.
How was he received in China on that speech?
It’s a bit difficult to tell but there was no obvious rebuff from the Chinese, there were no cancelled meetings and nothing else. But I thought it was a very effective time. He structured his criticisms in a way that was persuasive because he understands China’s culture. He was able to make his points effectively.
When the new president takes office next January, do you think it would be helpful for the new president to make some sort of Asian statement? There is talk about changing the Six-Party Talks into a permanent Northeast Asian security group.
That’s been pushed by the United States, particularly Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, who is the North Korea negotiator. There is a formal subcommittee, which I think was chaired by the Russians, looking at how this might be done. There is certainly a need for some sort of security mechanism in East Asia. The ASEAN regional forum, which is the largest body at the moment, is next to useless. So there are a lot of things to be done in Asia. With China’s continuing emergence and India’s growing power, signs that the new administration is going to be interested in and prepared to play an active role will be welcome here.