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Startlingly similar Asia policy for Obama, Romney

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

The Straits Times, September 17, 2012

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 policy.

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 both times. 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 steered clear 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 warmly. 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 and deter 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 superpowers. 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 “Disarm North 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 this 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 debate.

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