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Asia and the US Elections: Foreign Policy Challenges

Commentary, 23 October 2012
Defence Policy, Pacific
The US presidential elections will be watched in Asia for further clues of how the American focus on Asia will manifest in practice over the next four years. Understanding how different Asian states respond according to their own circumstances will keep the next US administration very busy indeed.

The US presidential elections will be watched in Asia for further clues of how the American focus on Asia will manifest in practice over the next four years. Understanding how different Asian states respond according to their own circumstances will keep the next US administration very busy indeed.

By Dr. Yee Kuang Heng

ASEAN Clinton

Photo from ASEAN 

US policy faces a knotty problem: enhance US strategic primacy in the region, without jeopardising China's deep economic ties with US allies and partners. While some Asian states share common ground with the US over Chinese influence and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), amorphous geographical concepts such as 'Asia' (much like the 'West') also fail to capture the complexity of how different countries in the region perceive US foreign policy challenges after the election. Further complicating the analysis is the fact that candidate Romney has said little about Asian powers such as India and Japan, more focused as he is on Israel, the US economy and Iran. What former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty called the 'Mitt Romney School' of foreign policy remains vague.

Economic Tensions

On trade and the economy, both candidates have employed the same old tactics of blaming China as the bogeyman. Romney threatened to designate China as a currency manipulator on his first day as President, and lampooned Obama as the 'outsourcer-in-chief'. Obama talks similarly of China 'gaming' the system but has been applying pressure more subtly on Beijing to let its currency appreciate. Beijing probably understands that election rhetoric might not translate afterwards to real policies. On the TPP, both candidates appear supportive although Romney has claimed he would seek fast-track authority to aggressively conclude the pact. The challenge for Washington will be to expand TPP membership, conclude difficult negotiations with countries like Japan, and address Chinese suspicions that the TPP is an appendage of the military 'pivot'. There is also rising trade and economic friction with China. The House Intelligence Committee recently warned of espionage risks relating to Chinese tech giant Huawei. Obama blocked a Chinese-owned company from building wind farms near a US Navy installation in Oregon for national security reasons - the first President in 22 years to do so - and also filed complaints against China's automobile subsidies, and jointly with Japan a complaint against Chinese rare earths policy at the World Trade Organisation. Another major player, India, has hardly been mentioned by Romney. Running mate Paul Ryan however appears to think more highly of India as a rising power with similar core interests. While Obama described the US-India relationship as one of the central partnerships of the Twenty-first century, the relationship appears to have lagged behind rhetoric. The US will have to continue to encourage Indian economic reforms and address what Obama called 'a deteriorating investment climate'.

Managing the Pivot to Asia

On security, Washington will have to demonstrate its ability, given its budgetary constraints, to make significant commitments. Otherwise, the perception of the 'pivot'/rebalancing as a last grasp attempt to maintain US primacy will fester. Romney drew criticism for painting Russia as America's 'No. 1 geopolitical foe', but his campaign website promises 'a strategy that makes the path of regional hegemony for China far more costly than the alternative path of becoming a responsible partner in the international system'. While unhappy with Obama rebalancing, Beijing probably perceives that Romney will implement more explicit containment-style policies, although both candidates' positions are roughly similar. The state-run China Daily accused Romney of 'a Cold War mentality' whose 'recommendations are more pugnacious" than Obama. Asia's other major power, Japan, will not appreciate Romney's verbal gaffes about it being in 'decline and distress for a decade or a century.' This has aroused some concern that Tokyo might be overlooked in a Romney Administration. Given how little Romney has said about Japan, it is difficult to assess how the US-Japan alliance might evolve. Japan has broadly welcomed the Obama rebalancing, despite China being its largest trade partner and tensions over realignment of US forces in Japan. Japan will likely deepen cooperation over North Korea, missile defence (it now hosts two US X-band radars) and build on the US security treaty as Tokyo shifts its defence focus to remote Japanese islands. In South Asia, Obama launched an annual strategic dialogue with India but practical results have been lacking. A new President will need to engage India on shared challenges such as the US drawdown from Afghanistan, China's presence in the Indian Ocean, and encourage greater civil nuclear co-operation.

Several other Asian states share the perception that the core challenge of US rebalancing is not to alienate China.  For Indonesia's Foreign Minister Mary Natalagawa, 'What worries us is having to choose (between China or the US).' Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam expressed concern about how election rhetoric might be counterproductive: 'Americans should not underestimate the extent to which such rhetoric can spark reaction which can create a new and unintended reality for the region'. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed accommodating China's increased presence while keeping the US engaged: 'that's the challenge'. Vietnam is playing a balancing game of a different sort: cultivate the US as a bolster against China but it also fears that Washington's ultimate intention might be regime change in Hanoi. As one Vietnamese saying goes, 'You get too close to China, you lose the country. You get too close to America, you lose the Party.' 

The elections will be watched in Asia for further clues of how the 'pivot', more recently termed 'rebalancing', will manifest in practice over the next four years. Understanding how different Asian states respond according to their own circumstances will keep the next US administration very busy indeed.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Dr. Yee Kuang Heng is Associate Professor (International Relations) and Assistant Dean (Research) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

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