With the United States presidential
election just a few short months away
and Americans engrossed in the candidates’ domestic views, the rest of
the world has shifted its focus to the candidates’ thoughts on foreign
Nowhere in the world should the focus on the US election be more
intense than in Asia. With the Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation (Apec) summit just ending in Vladivostok and President
Barack Obama the only leader of a major Apec power not attending,
Asians are surely
wondering what this November’s polls will mean for them. With well
over two billion people and some of the largest and fastest growing
economies in the world, Asia is on the brink of dramatic change and
whoever wins the White House will surely have a major effect.
This begs the question: Just how do the presidential candidates feel about Asia?
One thing is clear. Both candidates feel the most important nation to
focus on is China, but just how they approach this delicate subject
could have very different effects on the region. Both
want the US to remain the dominant
superpower, but is that even possible?
It is fair to say that Mr Obama’s Asia policy has not been his primary focus.
In fact, in his recent address at the Democratic National Convention,
the President mentioned Asia only twice and practically in passing
That said, the nature of the administration’s Asia policy and its
goals have become clear in the last year: to maintain the US’ powerful
influence over East Asia and counterbalance a growing China.
Mr Mitt Romney also seems to believe that the US should maintain an
influence in Asia, but he is taking an altogether different approach.
He sees China as the enemy. The Romney campaign seems to have no
qualms attacking China directly, whereas the Obama administration has
of inflammatory rhetoric.
Strategists in the Obama administration believe that China may have an
opportunity to gain influence over some nations in Asia, especially
with growing economies in India, Vietnam and elsewhere. To counter
this perceived threat, the Obama administration first turned to
diplomacy. Mr Obama visited China last autumn and was not greeted
This is because at the same time he was attempting diplomacy, Mr Obama
was also making military moves. Last year, the President announced the
shipment of 2,500 marines to a new base in Australia by 2016. Speaking
in Canberra, the President said that the move was to “project power
threats to peace”.
This statement and the move itself infuriated the Chinese, especially
given that he did not address it during his autumn visit, and led
other Asian nations to fear further struggles between the two
Whereas Mr Obama’s America has been silently posturing for a conflict
with China and outwardly attempting diplomacy, the Romney camp knows
who its enemy is and Mitt loves to say so.
Mr Romney’s website breaks down his Asia-Pacific policy into several
parts: “Maintain Robust Military Capabilities in the Pacific”, “Deepen
Cooperation among Regional Partners”, “Defend Human Rights”, and
Korea”. “In the face of China’s accelerated military build-up, the
United States and our allies must
maintain appropriate military capabilities to discourage any
aggressive or coercive behaviour by
China against its neighbours.”
This statement from Mr Romney’s
webpage on Asia policy says a lot about his views: China is a clear
threat to the US and its economic partners in Asia and must be dealt
with via a military
build-up. The sections on deepening
cooperation with neighbours
and defending human rights simply
mirror this view.
The Obama administration has made some statements against a nuclear
North Korea, but lately nearly all positions in Asia have taken a back
seat to China. Even on the subject of human
rights violations, the administration
has been largely silent – seeming to take the approach of not wishing
to wake a sleeping beast or attempt to reason with it. Instead, Mr
Obama intends to build up a fence to prepare for its arrival.
In contrast to their somewhat similar military views, economically Mr
Obama and Mr Romney have starkly different approaches. Mr Romney is
taking the high road. He wants to create a new
economic partnership in Asia: The “Reagan Economic Zone” would act as
a free-trade zone for participating nations. The invitation to join
zone would go out to all Asian nations,
including China, but their participation is not expected.
Rather, this trade agreement would likely act as a way to continue the
US’ sphere of influence in the region while discouraging “imbalanced
bilateral trade relations between China and its
neighbours”. With no solution similar to Mr Romney’s “Reagan Economic
Zone”, the President stands to
lose face in the midst of the heated
The Apec conference’s biggest focus is the economy, and Mr Obama did
not show up, which sends a strong message to the Asian community.
Compounding that issue were comments made during Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Beijing, where the Chinese asserted
sovereignty and control over the controversial South China Sea. With
the Chinese public already fearing the turn that the Obama
administration has taken over military power in the region, his
no-show at Apec will likely stir the pot.
In closing, it seems that Mr Romney’s and Mr Obama’s positions in Asia
differ crucially by their public appearances.
Mr Romney is seeking to appear tough on China by bashing and
attacking, while Mr Obama is hoping to appear more open to
negotiation. However, the Chinese do not seem to appreciate either
side’s rhetoric of “American
superiority”. Expect to see both candidates stand strong on defence
policies in Asia, while at the same time
likely avoid contentious attacks on each other’s policies due to their
startling similarity. Mr Romney, of course, will be
more vocal about the threat posed by China, and Mr Obama will be vocal
about the potential of strengthening diplomatic relations between the
two powers while engaging in very little diplomacy.
China is an ever-changing country. It is on the verge of becoming the
dominant world superpower and is in the midst of a leadership
transition. Both candidates fear a loss of influence in Asia and
China’s growing power, but they are living in a dream world. China is
surely on its way to becoming the world’s leading nation.
The writer is founder and chairman of
Horasis, a global business community
Horasis is a global visions community committed to enact visions for a sustainable future. (http://www.horasis.org)
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