As the world anticipates the start of an Obama Administration, many will be watching closely to see which country, and by extension which region, President-elect Obama decides to make his destination for first official foreign visit. Although an Obama Administration's greatest challenges may not necessarily originate from this country and/or region, the visit will help to indicate which foreign relationships President-elect Obama views most critical to the future betterment of American and its foreign affairs.
Thinking on the Bush Administration, many may not remember where President Bush made his first official foreign visit--Mexico, on February 16, 2001. Then Secretary of State Powell summarized the rationale of this visit on January 30, 2001:
"President Bush's decision to travel to Mexico as his first official foreign visit is powerful evidence of the special place Mexico holds in our national priorities. Our dealings with Mexico impact on the lives of millions of Americans. Our common border is no longer a line that divides us, but a region that unites our nations, reflecting our common aspirations, value and culture. Over a million people cross that border every day to work, to study, and to visit family members.
"With the advent of NAFTA, Mexico has grown to be our second largest trading partner, second only to Canada, our neighbor and fellow NAFTA member. The expansion of trade with Mexico has brought jobs and prosperity to both our nations, helping Mexico rebound from the peso crisis of the mid-90s.
"When President Fox took office last month, he inherited a sound economy and solid democratic institutions. And with President Bush now in office, these two leaders can take the opportunity of the upcoming meeting to chart a course for mutual cooperation over the next several years to develop plans for action in areas such as migration, law enforcement cooperation, border affairs and trade policy."
Although I won't expand on the positive and negative developments of our relationship with Mexico since that time, it is fair to say that Mexico remains a key trading partner and ally in global affairs. However, it has been replaced by China as the #2 trading partner with the United States (Source: FTDWebMaster, Foreign Trade Division, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C. 20233):
Tom Barnett argues in his article "What Bush-Cheney got right with China" that the solid foundation in the US-China relationship built by the Bush Administration should be taken advantage of by an Obama Administration:
"In the grand sweep of history, this is arguably George W. Bush's greatest legacy: the encouragement of China to become a legitimate stakeholder in global security.
"This sort of effort at grooming a great power for a greater role in international affairs is a careful balancing act, and the Bush team sounded most of the right notes, from reassuring nervous allies in Asia, to avoiding the temptation of trade retaliation while simultaneously pressuring Beijing for more economic liberalization, to drawing China into the dynamics of great power negotiation over compelling regional issues like the nuclear programs in both North Korea and Iran.
"We can always complain that Bush-Cheney didn't do more to solidify this most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century, but we cannot fault them for any lasting mistakes, and that alone is quite impressive.
"Indeed, history will likely judge this success as greater than the Bush administration's failures in Iraq.
"There, I said it.
"Democrats, who now control both Congress and the White House, would do well to retain the Bush administration's long-term perspective on China, especially during this moment of profound global economic uncertainty, when we need Beijing's help almost as much as it needs Washington's calm leadership."
David Wolf, at Silicon Hutong, also explains why an Obama Administration's approach to China will be crucial to the success of American foreign policy:
"If Obama is to keep his hard choices from backfiring with China, he must make his case to both the Chinese government and the Chinese people.
"And make no mistake, Obama will need China. One only need look at the issues the new president will face to see how important the help of the PRC will be to his success. At the very least, China will be essential in forging a global energy and environmental regime, bringing security to Central Asia, ensuring that Russia remains integrated in the global system, midwifing North Korea's return to that system (and perhaps its peaceful re-unification with South Korea), and, of course, resolving the current global financial crisis and forming new system to both nurture and regulate international finance.
"Conventional diplomacy will form a part of the effort to enlist that support, but it will not be enough. Instead, Obama and his team will need to undertake an unparalleled effort of public diplomacy, and one that shuns the tools and tactics of the Cold War for strategies, approaches, and messages more appropriate to a world rendered naked by the Internet."
Excluding the current financial crisis, since the last 8 years have provided an overall improvement in the economic and political relationships between primarily China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, these four countries are understandably expressing some concern and uncertainty about the approach an Obama Administration will take towards Northeast Asia. South Korea has concerns it will be insufficiently included in a resolution to issues with North Korea. Japan is concerned about a lack of commentary from the Obama team regarding Japan and its future role in American foreign policy, in addition to the team's protectionist and pro-union rhetoric during the presidential campaign. Because positive trade with the U.S. has benefited the Northeast Asia region considerably, concerns with an increase in U.S. protectionism is a common theme across the region, in particular China. The China Law Blog points out some posts to read on our #2 trading partner's perspective.
I feel one approach that will fail is to develop isolated policies for each country, rather than developing a regional, Northeast Asia policy that then drills down into how each country should be dealt with in relation with each other. If President-elect Obama chooses any other region besides Northeast Asia for his first official foreign visit, I will be disappointed. Assuming he does pick this region, I think the first choice should be China for all the pure strategic implications and the alternate would be South Korea as the Korean Peninsula will be a continuous and region-binding topic for the next administration.