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Who is Best for Asia: Romney or Obama? You Decide.

During Monday’s foreign policy debate, Asia’s future was an important topic. Dr. Richard Weitz breaks down the candidates’ positions.

The foreign policy debate between Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama excluded certain important issues that were not among those questions selected by moderator Bob Shieffer. The three Asian issues given the most attention were Iran, China, and Afghan-Pakistan. And even on these issues the debate deepened uncertainty regarding the presidential candidates’ policies. This is only natural given the format, which requires the candidates to describe complex policies and issues in a few seconds and in an effort to sound forceful, reasoned, moderate, and decisive, with clever sound bites and with little opportunity to correct mistaken utterances. So as a service to readers let me try to clarify the differences between the public stances of the two candidates, as well as highlight other Asian issues that will likely preoccupy the next administration.

With respect to Iran, Obama insisted that, “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon,” noting how Iran could then threaten Israel, “provide nuclear technology” to terrorists, or catalyze “a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world.” Tehran must choose, Obama insisted, between a diplomatic settlement that would “end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.”

Still, Iranian leaders have an “opportunity to re-enter the community of nations” but only if they” abide by the rules that have already been established; they convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program” through “inspections that are very intrusive,” and “over time, what they can do is regain credibility.”

The mentioning of the inspections issue is interesting since it implies that Iran could be allowed to continue enriching uranium as long as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could confirm that Iran was not diverting the enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons. But to work any such deal would have to see Iran also adopt at least the IAEA Additional Protocol so that the agency could inspect any sites where it suspected nuclear activities may be occurring, instead of only the sites that the Iranian government declares to the IAEA as part of its standard safeguards program.

Romney sought to repudiate Obama’s assertion that “during the course of this campaign he’s often talked as if we should take premature military action.” The governor said that “our mission is.. to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means.” He concurred that “a nuclear-capable Iran, is unacceptable to America” but emphasized that Tehran was “four years closer to a nuclear weapon,” which is chronologically true, as Obama acknowledged when he insisted that the “clock is ticking.” Romney insisted that “military action is the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been — had been tried to their full extent.”

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Both men also placed a lot of faith in sanctions. Obama argued that his administration had “organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy.” Romney agreed that, “It’s absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions. I’d have put them in place earlier, but it’s good that we have them.” He added that Washington should “tighten those sanctions” by targeting ships, companies, and people conveying Iranian oil. We should also pursue “diplomatic isolation efforts” by shunning Iranian diplomats and indicting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for trying to incite genocide.

Despite genuine efforts at engaging Tehran, however, the Obama administration has proven unable to resolve U.S. differences with the Iranian government over its nuclear program, regional security issues, or other disputes. Efforts at negotiation have encountered the problem that many influential Iranians are deeply committed to making progress in developing nuclear technologies. In addition, the Iranian elite have been so divided that any person that proposes major Iranian concessions is denounced as a traitor.

Despite these setbacks, the sincerity of the Obama administration’s engagement efforts did make it easier for Washington to induce foreign governments, particularly those in Europe, to adopt a harder stance towards Tehran. In addition, the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election, accompanied by the regime’s massive use of force against peaceful demonstrators, sharply diminished the legitimacy and popularity of the Iranian government.

There are indications that sanctions are having some effects on Tehran’s behavior. Even so, the Iranian government continues to make progress toward a nuclear weapons capability and remains securely in power despite internal discontent. Iran’s nuclear program has progressed sufficiently far that a limited military strike—such as the earlier Israeli air strikes against Iraq and Syria—would probably prove insufficient.

The recent renewal of negotiations might achieve a limited compromise settlement, but an enduring U.S.-Iran reconciliation remains improbable until Iran has new political leaders who are unafraid of losing power to a popular revolution, and capable of envisaging a genuine improvement in bilateral relations.

In the segment of the debate devoted to Afghanistan and Pakistan, both candidates stated that they will withdrawal all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by 2014, deviating from the condition-based withdrawal that they supported and NATO supported earlier, as well as the current Pentagon goal of keeping some 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to engage in training and special counterterrorist missions.

Schieffer began that session by noting that, “The United States is scheduled to turn over responsibility for security in Afghanistan to the Afghan government in 2014,” when “we will withdraw our combat troops, leave a smaller force of Americans, if I understand our policy, in Afghanistan for training purposes.” But then he asked “what do you do if the deadline arrives and it is obvious the Afghans are unable to handle their security? Do we still leave?”

In the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed on May 2, 2012, the United States pledged to provide Afghanistan economic, security, and diplomatic assistance for 10 years beyond the planned 2014 withdrawal date for all U.S. combat troops. The United States does not seek permanent military bases but can receive access to Afghan facilities. In return, the Afghanistan government commits to strengthen accountability, transparency, rule of law, and the human rights of all Afghans, male and female. The agreement left several questions unresolved, including how many U.S. troops would remain after 2014 and what missions they can undertake. These issues will be specified later in a separate and more detailed security agreement that is still under negotiation.

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Romney said that “when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014.” He added that “the surge has been successful, and the training program is proceeding apace.” Obama agreed that the U.S. troop surge had been successful during his administration, nothing that “we are now in a position where we have met many of the objectives that got us there in the first place” and stating “we’re now in a position where we can transition out, because there’s no reason why Americans should die when Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their own country.”

It is too early to term the Afghan transition strategy a success. There have been measurable progress in terms of some metrics, yet Washington and its allies have also seen a number of recent setbacks including the burning of Qurans inside Bagram Air Base by U.S. troops, the massacre of more than a dozen Afghan civilians by one maverick American soldier, and the circulation of photographs of U.S. forces defiling the bodies of dead Afghan Taliban. These developments have contributed to a surge of incidents in which Afghan soldiers turned their weapons on U.S. or other NATO forces in ugly cases of “green-on-blue” fratricide. Furthermore, the ANSF have been unable to prevent the Taliban from reestablishing a presence in regions cleared by NATO troops, and Afghanistan’s institutions have also proven incapable of promoting socioeconomic development or in improving diplomatic ties with Pakistan. There was also no discussion in the debate about possibly concluding a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, who appear increasingly inclined to merely “wait out” the foreign troops.

The U.S. administration also needs to develop and execute a strategy for Pakistan. Although the Obama administration has defined detailed goals for what they would like to achieve in Afghanistan, as well as developed strategies and programs for attaining them, they have yet to do so in the case of Pakistan, despite that country’s greater important in terms of population, geography, and military potential. Establishing clear objectives is important for ranking priorities among such goals as supporting peace and security in Afghanistan through reducing Pakistani support for the insurgents, curbing vertical or horizontal nuclear proliferation, strengthening civilian authority in Pakistan, reducing tensions between India and Pakistan, and so forth. To take one example, U.S. officials need to decide if it is worth confronting Islamabad over its support for terrorists in Afghanistan if that decreases Pakistan’s willingness to cooperate with Washington in securing its nuclear materials.

The last debate segment concerned the rise of China and future challenges for the United States. As noted in another article in The Diplomat, Obama said that “China’s both an adversary but also a potential partner in the international community if it’s following … the same rules as everybody else.” To encourage them to do so the administration has brought cases before the World Trade Organization against China and took other measures to create “a level playing field when it came to trade.” As a result, American exports to China have doubled in the past four years and China’s currency has substantially appreciated.

Romney also agreed that China and the United States share an interest in avoiding war and protectionism. “And so we can be a partner with China. We don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them. We can collaborate with them if they’re willing to be responsible.” But in this respect Romney said that “China has not played by the same rules.” In his view, “They’re stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods.”

Romney again charged that the Chinese were “holding down artificially the value of their currency,” which makes people buy Chinese rather than American goods. So he reaffirmed that “on day one I will label them a currency manipulator which allows us to apply tariffs where they’re taking jobs.” Both men then tried to show how their domestic policies would strengthen the American economy and make the United States a more effective economic competitor with China, differing on the proper role for the federal government in these endeavors.

The debate did not really address a larger Asian strategy. Obama did defend his “pivot to the Asia-Pacific region” after mentioning China’s security, arguing that the policy is “sending a very clear signal that America is a Pacific power,that we are going to have a presence there.” It was interesting that the president used the term “pivot” rather than the new phrase “rebalancing.” Critics have repeatedly noted that “pivot” can imply both that we were not really in Asia before and that we are turning away from our obligations in other regions, neither of which is true.

Fortunately, last night the Committee of 100 and the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies sponsored a debate between representatives of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates that focused exclusively on China. Dr. Jeffrey A. Bader, former Senior Director of Asian Affairs on Obama’s National Security Council, represented the Obama Campaign while Dr. Aaron Friedberg represented the Romney camp.

That surrogate debate made clear that the Obama administration’s increased focus on China and the Asia-Pacific region enjoys widespread bipartisan support in Washington and that even a Republican president would likely continue along the same lines. The representatives stressed the importance of China and Asia for the United States and the world given the region’s economic and strategic importance. They concurred in the goal of achieving a peaceful and prosperous China and Asian region that reflects U.S-supported values and human rights. The two experts rejected the idea of pursuing a containment strategy toward China, noting that other Asian countries would oppose it as well, and supported continuing the general strategy of mixing engagement and balancing that has been pursued by Republican and Democratic administrations since the Cold War.

Like Obama and Romney in their debate, Bader and Friedberg differed primarily on how successful the Obama administration had been in pursuing this strategy. Bader pointed to evidence of considerable progress, while Friedberg criticized the Obama administration for being ineffective, inconsistent, insufficiently resourced, and focusing on rhetoric and processes rather than results. Bader warned that Romney’s plans to declare China a currency manipulator on the first day of his presidency would backfire, while Friedberg argued that showing a little more backbone on currency and other issues could produce superior results. He insisted that we needed to find ways to exert more leverage to make the economic relationship more balanced more rapidly than what he termed the weak administration policies were doing.

Both men reaffirmed the importance of resumed mil-to-mil dialogue. Bader stressed the need to engage the Chinese military, whose continued relative domestic and international isolation could present problems given its importance in PRC national security decisions. It needs to understand the outside world better. Bader termed the creation of the China-U.S. Strategic Security Dialogue, which has senior uniformed military officers join the top officials, the accomplishment of a 25-year quest to get the Chinese military in the same room with senior Chinese civilians and their American counterparts.

Friedberg warned that the military dialogue should not be an end in itself and needed to produce concrete results. The same was true with U.S. efforts to promote democracy, economic reform, and better cyber policies regarding China. Nevertheless, Friedberg acknowledged that U.S. leverage on these and other areas was limited and that we needed to hedge against bad outcomes. In addition, Americans often have to place our faith in the correctness of our values and the power of the Chinese people to force the regime to pursue policies that more comprehensively benefited the Chinese nation as well as its foreign partners.

Seeking to dispel concerns that Washington was abandoning Taipei, Bader noted that the Obama administration had supported Taiwan through one of the largest arms sales packages in history without ruining cross-Strait relations. Friedberg said that a Romney administration would sell Taiwan even more advanced planes to counter the PLA Air Force’s surging capabilities. But both men agreed Taiwan was no longer in a position to match Beijing militarily and that the United States and other countries had to continue convincing PRC leaders than any use of force would prove disastrous to China’s overall foreign policy,

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Bader acknowledged that the administration had achieved only modest success in inducing China to pursue more cooperative policies regarding such contentious issues as economic and political reform, climate change, and regional nonproliferation issues like Iran and North Korea.

The Obama administration benefited from Chinese overreaching in 2009 and 2010, which alarmed many Asian leaders previously lulled by Beijing’s earlier non-confrontational policies in most of Asia. The Chinese provocations prompted newly anxious Asian countries to seek greater U.S. involvement in the region. PRC policymakers have since tempered their approach, which over time could weaken regional demands for a larger and more visible U.S. security presence in Asia.

Furthermore, Sino-American tensions over Taiwan, U.S. military patrols near China, and mutual military buildups are being downplayed rather than resolved. This year should see continued restraint in Beijing due to domestic political preoccupations. But the long-term economic, ideological, and military sources of Sino-American tension persist and could easily manifest themselves in further confrontations over Iran, Korea, South China Sea, or Taiwan.