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Obama's foreign policy is a major worry for Ireland

FOREIGN affairs did not attract the interest of American voters during the election campaign. They seldom do. But over the next four years, US foreign policy will be a preoccupation not only in Washington but in every major capital in the world.

For European and Asian leaders, the re-election of President Barack Obama came largely as a relief tinged with doubt: relief from the fear of dangerous new departures by a Republican administration, doubt of the president's capacity to handle the colossal challenges before him.

Like many of his predecessors, Mr Obama plans to devote more attention to foreign affairs in his second term. Unlike them, he has to act in the context of a relative decline of American power with the rise of China.

China's ambitions were outlined publicly by the outgoing leader, Hu Jintao, at the Communist Party congress this week. He told the delegates that China intends to become a maritime power.

This means much more than the aggressive stand taken by the Chinese over the possession of some tiny islands held by Japan. Beijing also has claims on territories held by Vietnam and the Philippines. The Americans have acknowledged the threat to their own influence. They plan to redeploy substantial military forces to southeast Asia.

We need not fear, at this time, that the shifting world balance will lead to the ultimate nightmare, nuclear war. But the apparently trivial Sino-Japanese dispute has already brought a little more instability to an unstable planet.

Chinese consumers have mounted a boycott of Japanese imports, especially cars. That will increase, if only slightly, the global economic troubles. These include, predominantly, the faltering American recovery and the turmoil in the European Union. American commentators forecast the break-up of the eurozone and the EU itself.

For Ireland, economic threats in the US, Europe and China are bad news. We rely on foreign trade to promote growth. Our exports are performing brilliantly, but we cannot afford disruption in our major markets.

In addition, we cannot ignore the specific fear that President Obama will stand by his declared intention to take measures to discourage US foreign investment. It hardly needs saying that Ireland needs this investment to continue.

How real is the danger? That depends on whether Washington believes it can stem the outflow of capital without damaging repercussions. At worst, there could be a return of protectionism and a global slump comparable to that of the 1930s.

There is no immediate prospect of such dreadful developments, but Washington is deeply anxious about events in China and their consequences for world trade.

During the election campaign, the Republican Party put forward at least one substantial proposal -- though not a new one. Mitt Romney wanted the Chinese to revalue their currency and thereby forsake the "unfair" advantage in exports they gain from an undervalued currency.

But is the new regime in Beijing in any position to make concessions on its economic advantages, unfair or otherwise?

The Chinese Communist Party could congratulate itself on the success of this week's congress. It achieved its most important aim, a smooth transition of power.

However, the outgoing leader delivered a second parting message -- one, presumably, less palatable to some than his vision of China as a maritime power. He said the new regime would have to tackle the country's breathtaking corruption, which costs it three percentage points of its annual growth.

THE economic problems thus created are by no means the worst China faces. The division between rich and poor has become critical. Ethnic troubles have increased in Tibet and elsewhere. The flight from the land to the cities continues; it is calculated that over the next decade 400 million people will move. Beijing may face social unrest on a barely imaginable scale.

And although American voters may have taken no notice of the planet's other crises during the election campaign, they have not gone away.

The Arab Spring has not brought much peace or democracy to the Middle East and North Africa. Civil war rages in Syria. The Taliban wait to seize Afghanistan. Pakistan looks like descending into chaos. No solution to the Palestinian question is in view.

Mr Obama believes in dialogue and conciliation. He offers direct talks, without preconditions, with Iran. He hopes to persuade Middle Eastern monarchies to make democratic reforms.

His objectives are noble, but his first-term achievements were, to put it gently, mixed. If he devotes himself to foreign policy in his second term, will he do any better? If he succeeds, he will be seen as one of the great American presidents. But has he learned in the past four years that election-style rhetoric counts for nothing compared with hard facts?

Irish Independent