US Presidential Debates: The Asia Round


Let the fight begin. The upcoming U.S. presidential debates beginning in August will test candidates’ equanimity, endurance, and electability. Equanimity is essential if the candidate is to exude grace under fire, of which there will be plenty across the numerous bouts. Endurance will sustain candidates in the face of unrelenting punditry and polling. Electability – authenticity that resonates – will separate the wheat from the chaff. Debates subject candidates’ substance and style to intense scrutiny. Each contender – from heavyweight to southpaw – needs to evince presidential aura and acumen in prime time.

The Contenders

To date, ten Republican and four Democratic candidates have officially jumped into the ring. In the far right corner, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham have come out swinging. The evangelical flank – Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum – are striving to resuscitate their 2012 runs. Rand Paul, bobbing and weaving, is duking it out with GOP chiefs. Ben Carson and George Pataki are hanging on the ropes. Carly Fiorina shows moxie with the sharpest jabs and cleanest cross. Upon officially declaring after his Europe trip, Jeb Bush should hone his counterpunches, cover his chin, or remain a welterweight after some befuddled sparring over Iraq. Scott Walker, recently returned from Israel, must prove he is no longer a national security lightweight as he soon steps into the ring. Fringe contenders Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump are presumably lacing up their gloves. Chris Christie, teetering on becoming a Marlon Brando-esque “I coulda been a contender” character, remains ringside for now. In the far left corner Bernie Sanders is flexing his left hook, while Martin O’Malley, beleaguered by Baltimore, seems to be shadow boxing. In weight class Lincoln Chafee – Republican-Independent-Democrat convert – is calling for U.S. conversion to the metric system. Hillary Clinton weighs in as the sole Democratic heavyweight, but endless controversies pinch her punching power.

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The Stakes 

At stake is the future of U.S. leadership in Asia. Spelling out these stakes requires smarts and savvy minus soundbites. With each round of debate, the national security component will likely address strategic issues – Iraq, Iran, Israel, Islamic State, Afghanistan, Russia, Ukraine, and China. Related topics linked to domestic policy will probably include immigration, industrial espionage, intelligence surveillance, cybersecurity, and currency manipulation. Asia’s security architecture, trade and investment, civil society, and the China factor are four Asia policy pillars worth addressing, as we outlined in our recent preview.

Security Architecture. Will the next U.S. president sustain or recalibrate the rebalance to Asia?

A core aspect of the Asia policy debate revolves around how the United States, Japan, India, and China will manage regional security challenges. Escalating tensions over China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea highlight maritime security as one component of a much-needed security architecture which upholds the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The power vacuum in Afghanistan has accentuated the limitations of U.S. leverage and advanced Pakistan’s pivot to China. The velocity of Islamic State’s spread in South Asia adds a whole new dimension to Asia’s security threats and bolsters the specter of radical Islam as a countervailing ideology to democracy. Cyberwars as a rapidly morphing virtual combat theater will unlikely abate as methods and motives become more sophisticated. Candidates thinking strategically will explain how Asia’s geopolitical landscape impacts U.S. vital interests. 

Trade and Investment. How will the U.S. lead Asia’s future economic growth and integration?

With the U.S. House of Representatives soon set to vote on approving Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), fierce internal debate in Congress is being waged on the risks and rewards of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Candidates taking the long view will explain the local linkage between future U.S. economic growth and Asia’s market magnitude, as affirmed by the endorsement of the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month.

Civil Society. How will the next U.S. administration leverage the power of philanthropy, education, and social media in strengthening civil society across Asia?

Astute candidates know that the potency of American soft power and public diplomacy is a formidable force for social change. With the 26th anniversary of Tiananmen, the fateful events of June 4, 1989 are a blank page for a generation of Chinese young people oblivious to their predecessors’ democracy aspirations. Yet Chinese and other Asian students are flocking in droves to the United States for secondary and university education to experience democracy firsthand. From 2013-2014 Asian students accounted for 64 percent of international students in the United States, according to 2015 International Institute of Education data. American altruism fuels global impact investing. The United States has consistently ranked first place in charitable giving from 2009-2013 and shared the number one ranking with Myanmar in 2014, according to the World Giving Index 2014. With Asia’s 874 million social media users, emerging social media platforms – KaKaoTalk and CyWorld in South Korea, Line in Japan, QZone and WeChat (Weixin) in China – dominate market penetration in these respective countries, though Facebook retains global dominance. As social media makes the boundaries of personal and communal, local and global more porous, national identities and allegiances are less static, more malleable.

The China Factor. How will the next U.S. president navigate the future direction of U.S.-China relations?

The future of an effective U.S policy toward Asia is intertwined with the health of U.S.-China relations. In U.S. election campaigns, candidates predictably resort to anti-China rhetoric. This default debate device lacks credibility if it is used merely for campaign posturing. A viable commander-in-chief will call for strong U.S. leadership in Asia and explain the centrality of U.S.-China relations in a multipolar world. They would also differentiate themselves from the pack by explaining the range of scenarios – good, bad, and ugly – for bilateral relations in the near term and underscore the risks of mismanaging this relationship over the long run.

As Asia and the rest of the world watch the highly anticipated presidential match, we’ll provide ringside coverage of each contender’s foreign policy footwork, strategic shots, and messaging moves on the canvas.

Mercy A. Kuo is an advisory board member of CHINADebate and was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Angie O. Tang is Senior Advisor of Asia Value Advisors, a leading venture philanthropy advisory firm based in Hong Kong.

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