(The Diplomat over the next few weeks will be featuring the U.S. Presidential Election and what effect it may have on the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific region. Our hope is to provide a broad array of opinions and ideas from both sides of the political spectrum. Note: All opinions published are those of the author and not the views of this publication. Please also see: How Obama’s India Policy Has Made America Stronger)
After months of campaigning that has been largely devoid of foreign policy debate, the American electorate is finally seeing some contrast between the candidates’ views following the first presidential debate and Gov. Romney’s foreign policy address at the VMI on Monday.
China emerged as an economic bogeyman. Governor Romney took several pot shots at China during the debate, arguing that America’s economic security is at risk due to borrowing money from China. “Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it.” President Obama hit China on the campaign trail, vowing to close loopholes that allow companies to claim tax deductions for exporting jobs, and pointing out that Romney’s former firm, Bain capital, pushed companies to outsource jobs to China. He’s also enacted measures to block Chinese firm from working on a wind energy project that is close to a military base, and has initiated action at the WTO to challenge China’s subsidies for Auto parts.
While they both seem to agree that China is of growing economic concern, the candidates have sketched out increasingly divergent positions on U.S. security issues. President Obama is several years into a “pivot” to Asia. Fulfilling a central campaign theme, he ended the war in Iraq and executed a surge in Afghanistan, leading to the planned completion of the U.S. mission by 2014. He has also invested in strengthening U.S. relations with other countries in Asia. Two examples are rekindled ties with Burma following its release of human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi and economic liberalization, and the announcement of closer military ties with Australia, including a new agreement to base U.S. naval forces at a facility in Western Australia.
In his VMI address, Governor Romney focused almost exclusively on the Middle East, vowing to tighten America’s relationship with Israel, preventing Iran’s weapon’s program from succeeding, and making a veiled reference to possibly extending the timeline for American forces in Afghanistan. He criticized the administration’s pivot to Asia as an abandonment of our European allies, and seemingly suggested that the U.S. withdrew from Iraq too soon. Romney vowed to recommit to NATO and increase the U.S. defense budget, including an expansion of the Navy by 15 new ships per year. In this address, China was only mentioned in passing.
It is difficult to square Romney’s views on China with his foreign policy proposals. They are mutually exclusive, as it would not be possible to significantly expand the military, extend conflicts in the Middle East, and simultaneously lower taxes without borrowing money to pay for it.
His views also lack imagination – igniting conflicts that the American people are overwhelmingly opposed to and increase defense budgets? It sounds like a pivot back to the Bush years, and paints a picture of a candidate with no ideas of his own, yearning for the simplicity of the Cold War. A look at Romney’s foreign policy team is illustrative – almost all of them are veterans of the team that architected the Iraq war in the George W. Bush administration.
President Obama must take him to task for these inconsistencies, and defend his foreign policy more vigorously. Perhaps more importantly, he needs to articulate a vision for his second term that the American people can understand. With the escalation of unrest in the Middle East, the President has a great opportunity – the democratic reforms that many longed hoped to see in this region have now happened. What is missing is a vision of how the U.S. should engage with these embryonic and disorganized new regimes in a way that furthers American interests.
For now, both candidates seem to be willing to cast China as the villain in America’s economic growth, and we should expect to see more China bashing from both sides. The President currently enjoys a lead among voters as being the most trustworthy on foreign policy. Whether he can keep that lead will depend on his ability to defend his Asia pivot and provide a more realistic vision of American leadership than his opponent.
Doug Raymond is the founder and CEO of Julu Mobile, a technology company based in Shanghai, and a fellow of the Truman National Security Project.