Asia and the US political cycle

Author: Peter Drysdale, Editor, East Asia Forum

Most attention last week was focused on Xi Jinping’s absence from the public stage in Beijing just prior to China’s political transition.

But America is in full electoral mode, always an occasion in most countries for appeal from both sides of the political spectrum to more nationalist instincts in the body politic.

Perhaps that’s not exactly true, since the incumbent in the United States actually has the responsibility of governing and, consistently, defending a more nuanced and balanced view of national diplomatic interests. The pretenders — this time the Mitt Romney-led Republicans — are likely to try to extract whatever they can from appeal to nationalist or nativist interests or, more generously, endeavouring to define an alternative course that differentiates and elevates its foreign policy strategy above that of the occupant of the White House.

Back in 1976, New Yorker Magazine ran a nice cartoon that was meant to capture the American view of the world looking out towards Asia. It was dominated by the huge canyons that are New York looking west from Ninth Avenue, with a pond that represented the Pacific Ocean and a tiny little map of Japan right off in the distance across town. That said it all. Japan was a minor disturbance in the distance, threatening to become No.1 but never really in contention. Draw that cartoon today and the map of China would loom distinctly larger. China is more than a minor blip in the distance. It’s on its way to becoming a political issue in Main Street America. The indignation that captured the US commentariat and drove the story to the front page of the Washington Post when Secretary of State Clinton appeared to be snubbed by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping last week is emblematic of the undercurrent. The idea that Xi could actually have been out of action for whatever the reason didn’t even occur to otherwise intelligent analysts!

So how has China played into election-American style?

Anatol Lieven observes in this week’s lead that if Romney wins the presidency in November and actually implements some of his foreign policy promises, US−China relations (and Asian affairs) could be in real trouble.

‘Romney has vowed that ‘unless China changes its ways, on day one of my presidency I will designate it a currency manipulator and take appropriate counteraction’. On Taiwan he declared that ‘the Department of Defense should reconsider recent decisions not to sell top-of-the line equipment to our closest Asian allies. We should be coordinating with Taiwan to determine its military needs and supplying them with adequate aircraft and other military platforms’. Put together, these actions would bring about a crisis in US–Chinese relations, with very grave potential consequences for the global economy and for military tension between the United States and China. And though Romney’s rhetoric about China’s human rights record echoes that of the Obama administration, it is a good deal shriller. If continued when in office, it would also significantly worsen relations’.

Lieven is right that, should a Romney administration follow this course, there would likely be serious trouble not only in US−Chinese relations but also for the global economy and military tension in the Asian theatre.

But would Romney actually deliver on his rhetoric on China?

As Lieven says, there’s a lot of form from previous Republican contenders that suggests that he wouldn’t. The Bush campaign in 2000 ran a hawkish line towards China which evaporated as President Bush adopted more realistic and restrained policies on assuming office. Clinton also stirred the China pot on the way to office but played a different tune when he got there. Obama’s ‘pivot’ towards Asia may be under-resourced and more posture than substance, as Romney argues, but the American ‘iron rice bowl’ will constrain substantial additional military commitment in Asia even if Romney were inclined to make it. It is possible that we are at the cusp of a deep structural fracture in the psychology of US−Chinese relations, as otherwise quite level-headed Americans are spooked by the staggering economic rise of China and ‘the new centrality of China in US strategy’, but the level-headedness — in the economic, political and military spheres — still dominates mainstream America on the China question.

Yet there is a real chance, as Lieven points out, that a Romney administration would be blindsided on its Asia strategy by over-reach in the Middle East. Any Israeli attack on Iran with the backing of a Romney administration would not only create a grave new crisis in the Middle East but would pin the United States down more deeply in the region, making it even more difficult to redeploy resources to Asia and the Pacific. The Romney camp has launched attacks on Obama for ‘abandoning’ Israel, but in fact commitment to Israel is bipartisan. If a Romney administration became entrapped in a worsening crisis in the Middle East, it would be caught in a situation not unlike that of the Bush administration after September 11 commitments in Afghanistan on top of Iraq.

The handling of questions of foreign policy has not been Romney’s strongest political suite during the campaign. Mismanaging the diplomacy of Britain’s Olympics was just the beginning; his bumble-footed intervention the over the Chen affair and the latest gaffe over the assassination of America’s ambassador to Libya is yet another.

At this stage the polls suggest that Romney will not win in November, a result that would defy precedent given the deep economic burdens that President Obama will carry into the election. Should Obama succeed in gaining a second term, these tough foreign policy choices will remain.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

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