How Asia Sees America’s Election: Three Views From the Asia-Pacific

Recent Features

Features | Politics

How Asia Sees America’s Election: Three Views From the Asia-Pacific

Today Americans go to the polls to elect their next president. The Diplomat presents three different views from China, Australia and S. Korea.

In light of America’s Presidential election, The Diplomat presents three diverse views of the election from writers in three different countries in Asia: China, Australia and South Korea. Each presents their own perspective on the election as well as viewpoints that are unique to the Asia-Pacific . 

A Perspective From China: Shen Dingli is professor of international relations at Fudan University where he is Executive Dean of Institute of International Studies and Director of the Center for American Studies.

Today Americans go to the polls and will most likely know who their next President is within the next 24 hours.

No matter who is elected, U.S. policy towards China will not change significantly.  Let us examine for a moment some of the crucial issues that concern Sino-U.S. relations.

No matter whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is elected, the next administration will undoubtedly continue selling weapons to Taiwan.  The Obama administration followed through on George W. Bush’s weapons sales to Taiwan, and approved its own additional weapons package as well.  Obama has signaled that he is willing to sell more advanced equipment and bargain with other stakeholders. He will likely continue to push the envelope in his next term.  If Romney is elected, his administration is likely to behave in a similar manner. Similarly, President Obama has met with the Dalai Lama twice during his first term; Romney will continue this trend during his own tenure, albeit probably with less frequency.

Given China’s rise and its strengthened efforts to make its maritime rights known, the U.S. is stepping up its surveillance and regional balancing measures vis-à-vis China.  Such reconnaissance close to Chinese territory led to an air collision between a U.S. EP-3 and a Chinese J-8 aircraft in April 2001, under a Republican president, and the encirclement of the USS Impeccable in May 2009, under a Democratic president.  There is no reason that such incidents would end during Obama’s second term or Romney’s first.  Likewise, Obama will not call off his rebalancing in Asia, which is clearly aimed at China, and Romney will follow the same policy.

Even in the case of the of the Diaoyu Islands, Republicans and Democrats have also forged a new consensus on U.S. policy towards the dispute, which deviates significantly from America’s previous stance. From 1972-2001, American officials continuously reiterated that the U.S.-Japan security alliance didn’t apply to the dispute. This began shifting, however, when the George W. Bush administration took office. The current administration has built on its predecessor’s example, with Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta both openly claiming that the treaty covers the islands.  Regardless of which candidate is elected president, it is hard to envision the next administration reversing this new policy of extending the U.S. security umbrella to the Diaoyu Islands.

The areas where more is arguably at stake in terms of who will be president are employment and currency issues.  Although President Obama claimed in the third and final presidential debate that his administration has taken more punitive actions on China’s exports to America than its predecessor, he has not gone as far as labeling China as a currency manipulator.  If he is reelected, there is little reason to think he will not continue his current policy of pressing China to appreciate the RMB without ushering in a trade war.  If Romney is elected, he will surely spend his first days in office walking back his pledge to brand China as a currency manipulator. Indeed, it’s worth recalling that, as a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama issued a similar threat, though to a lesser degree, just two days before the election. President Obama quickly backed away from this position soon after taking command of the White House.

There is no reason to believe that a President Romney would honor the threat that candidate Romney had uttered repeatedly.  After all, China imported $120 billion worth of goods from America in 2011 and is likely to double its overall imports by 2015. The incoming administration is likely to attach greater importance to convincing China to increase its imports from the United States, without having to press Beijing too drastically to appreciate its currency. Adjusting exchange rates only redistributes the destination of American outsourcing to other countries within Asia and beyond.

There are some differences between the two candidates on China, however.  The Democratic contender tends to promote vigorous efforts curbing climate change and demands more of China in this area, which is of less concern to Romney and the Republican Party.  Democrats in general tend to be more inclined to cooperate with other nations, however, this could also lead to the U.S. expanding its cooperation with China’s neighbors against Beijing.

Overall, no matter which candidate is elected, a firm, steady and credible America is more likely to shape a stable China-U.S. relationship which better serves the interests of both countries.

A Perspective From Australia:  Dr. Adam Lockyer is a lecturer in U.S. politics and foreign policy at the United States Studies Centre, at the University of Sydney.

The U.S. Presidential Election is easily the most followed election on the planet. Citizens of other countries, who may pay little attention to their own politics, take a genuine interest in it. This is especially true of Australians. As a consequence, on Election Day, every Australian television channel will be running continuous coverage or inserting regular news updates into their normal programing.

Although hooked on the theatrics and peculiar customs of the primaries and general election, many aspects of the campaign continue to confuse Australians. Australians frequently assume they intrinsically understand America because both countries share a settler history, multicultural society, language, and democratic political traditions. The large amount of American culture that Australia consumes only adds to the sense of familiarity. But it is often a false familiarity. There are some major differences in the political culture between the two countries, and these often led to misunderstandings.

Currently, by far the biggest issue that Australians are scratching their collective heads over is why it is such a close race. To many Australians, Obama should be easily winning.

There are five reasons why Australians are confused by reports that the 2012 U.S.Presidential Election will be a nail biter.

The first reason is that President Barrack Obama remains incredibly popular in Australia. Earlier this year, the Lowy Institute published a poll showing that 80 percent of Australians would prefer to see Obama continue as U.S. president compared with the 9 percent of Australians who favor his Republican challenger. This was actually an increase from 2008, when 73 percent reported supporting Obama compared with 16 percent for the then GOP nominee, John McCain. Obama would clearly win in a landslide if he ran in Australia so Australians have difficulty understanding why it is neck and neck over the other side of the Pacific.

Second, American political culture is to the right of Australia. Australia has three main political parties: the Liberal Party, which is center-right; the Labor Party, which is center-left; and the Greens, which are on the far left end of the Australian political spectrum. Yet, as is often pointed out, all three Australian parties would fall under the broad umbrella of Obama’s Democratic Party if they were in the United States.

Much of the conservative rhetoric radiating out from the Republican Party would not be considered mainstream political discourse in Australia. There is no question that one can find many of the Republican Party’s positions on issues like abortion, social welfare, gun control, law and order and taxation being expressed in Australia; however, they are frequently among the most extreme positions to be found within the Australian parliament. As such, it is safe to speculate that the 9 percent of Australians that support Mitt Romney would be among the most Conservative wing of the Liberal Party. With this in mind, it would be impossible for an Australian Prime Minister to be elected on this support base alone. Consequently, in the minds of many Australians, the conservative rhetoric radiating out of the GOP would disqualify them from the nation’s highest elected office.

Third, cultural misunderstandings also exist between Australians and Americans over the policies that Obama has pursued. Obama’s first term policy agenda appears far less radical to Australians than it does to many Americans. It is a truism in Australia, for instance, that private health insurance is only viable when young and old both purchase premiums. Private health providers cannot possibly be viable selling premiums solely to the old and the sick without charging excessively high prices. As such, it has long been accepted in Australia that government has a role in encouraging younger and healthier people to acquire private health premiums through tax breaks and over incentives. This is a central tenet of “Obamacare.”

About 50 percent of Americans, however, have continually opposed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), or “Obamacare” as it is more commonly called. In addition to the perception that the health-care reforms will be harmful to the economy and business, there are also deeper philosophical issues at play. Many opponents of “Obamacare” view any governmental regulation as a challenge to their personal liberty and freedom. They ought to be free to decide whether they purchase healthcare or not. Obamacare is therefore an unjustified government intrusion into their personal liberty, an example of the worst excesses of a bloated federal government.

Fourth, through Australian eyes, Obama is more than just a politician. He is also a symbol of the best of America. Obama, as the first African American U.S.president, still holds special significance around the world. There remains a feeling that Obama proves that America remains a country where anything is possible. Yet, the symbolic significance of Obama has much greater traction outside the United States than within it. From within the United States, one gets the impression that there is a greater sense that this milestone has been achieved and, as such, Obama is now judged as just another politician. The irony here is that the excitement that many Australians felt about having their first female Prime Minister has now virtually disappeared.

Finally, and arguably most important, the current economic conditions are vastly different between Australia and the United States. America’s unemployment rate is currently 7.9 percent; and August 2012 was the first time that the unemployment rate had dropped below 8 percent since February 2009. Although corporate America has largely recovered after the global financial crisis (GFC), jobs and economic growth are yet to reach the real economy. There are three reasons why corporate America is not rapidly rehiring all the workers it laid off in 2008-2009: 1) demand remains low, 2) companies have discovered they do not need as many workers as they had thought before the GFC, and 3) political uncertainties continue to be a major drag on the economy. In contrast, the Australian economy was largely untouched by the GFC. Australia is close to experiencing full employment. Since 2007, the Australian economy has grown by 11 percent compared to the United States’ 1.75 percent growth during that time. Australians are not feeling the same strains as Americans, and thus do not fully comprehend the widely held discontentment with the current political leadership.

If Obama loses the election, a great number of Australians will be transfixed watching their television screens in disbelief and puzzlement.

A Perspective from South Korea: Robert E. Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University and a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat consulting. He writes frequently on his website, Asian Security Blog.

Given the long-standing alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States, one might think that South Koreans would be paying a great deal of attention to the U.S. Presidential race. They’re not. Perhaps this is because the two candidates have had little to say about South Korea, except for the typical refrains about “defending freedom,” “resisting tyranny,” and “not abandoning America’s closest allies.” Denouncements of North Korea, although welcome, are equally expected.

Nonetheless, I can see four basic interests that South Korea has in the election, even if they are not articulated frequently.

1. At the elite level, the ROKG (Republic of Korea government) wants a standard reaffirmation of the U.S.-Korea alliance from whoever wins.

In this sense the lack of attention Korea has received in the election is reassuring to leaders in Seoul. The current president, Lee Myung-bak, has put the alliance on a good footing over the past few years after the tension that characterized the relationship during the leftist presidents before him. In this sense, no news is likely good news. Additionally, contrary to the Japanese and Chinese, Koreans haven’t been following the whole “pivot” discussion either. The ROKG is pretty happy with the current hub-and-spoke alliance system, so the pivot isn’t really exciting. In any case, whoever wins in the U.S. election is nearly certain to reaffirm the importance of  U.S.-ROK relations. At the strategic level, then, there is not much to be concerned about.

2. Also at the elite level, the ROKG would like to see a continued U.S. military presence.

Korea spends only 2.7% of GDP on defense, which, as I’ve argued before, is woefully inadequate given that it is an encircled middle power bordering the most dangerous country on the planet. Despite some recent improvements, the Korean military is primarily a land and infantry force, and therefore remains highly dependent on the U.S. for other capabilities like air, naval, and C4ISR assets (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance).

Broadly speaking, then, Korea still needs the U.S. to capture the benefits of the “networked battlefield.” Seoul still has lots of soldiers (around 650,000), and it could fight a grinding, manpower-intensive, defense-in-depth conflict with North Korea modeled on WWI or the first Korean War. But more asymmetric, nonconventional actions – like last year’s Libya operation with its intensive coordination of airstrikes, drones, and logistical, satellite, and intelligence demands – is beyond the capabilities of the ROK military. So, for contingencies lighter than an all-out North-South slug-match, South Korea still needs American technology and logistics.

This becomes particularly crucial if the North implodes and the South has to enter the country to reestablish law and order. In that sort of chaotic environment, the intelligence and direction that U.S. networks (especially satellites) can bring to bear will be critical to hunt down WMD’s, locate high-level officials, and, most importantly, quickly disarm the North Korean People’s Army to prevent an insurgency from taking root.

My own sense is that South Korea should perform more of these operations independently from the Americans. Fixing North Korea is going to be hugely expensive and difficult, and it is unnerving how indifferent South Koreans can be about this. “Full spectrum dominance” is asking too much, but a thicker, fuller capability to win the war – conventional or asymmetric – and properly occupy North Korea (i.e., not like the American occupation of Iraq) is a national asset worth having and paying for. I’ve actually made this argument a few times at conferences, but (unsurprisingly) no one seems particularly eager to embrace an argument that advocates doubling defense spending. To be fair, it is not wholly unreasonable that a country that was a military dictatorship just 25 years ago is unenthusiastic about initiating a huge defense build-up.

In any case, this means that South Koreans, especially the elite who would be unlikely to convince the National Assembly to support a sizeable defense buildup,will need to keep U.S. forces here in some strength indefinitely. Whoever wins the U.S. presidency will therefore encounter resistance from his Korean counterparts if he attempts to reduce the U.S. troop strength on the Peninsula.

3. At the popular level, though not well articulated, is the desire to hold onto the Americans to help integrate North Korea when it finally collapses.

Admittedly, this point requires greater speculation than the first two points, which are generally accepted. As noted above, it is both surprising and unnerving how unprepared South Korea seems to be for unification. This is not to say the ministries don’t have formal plans for the task. These exist, and there are countless Powerpoints to prove it. (Although a common joke in Korean political circles is that the least capable person in the cabinet is given the unification ministry, because it doesn’t require them to do anything.)

The same is not true of the average Korean. I get almost no sense from students, family, friends, colleagues, and others that South Koreans are ready for the huge project this will be. Instead there seems to be a vague sense that somehow the UN, the World Bank or the Americans are going to do the heavy lifting, with the Japanese possibly bankrolling it, or else an unfounded hope that North Korea can be compartmentalized indefinitely as some kind of massive export processing zone. What is rarely seen is a realization that this will be an occupation and reconstruction on par with, or more than difficult than those the Americans have undertaken in Iraq or Afghanistan in the last decade. Unification is going to hit South Korea like a ton of bricks when Pyongyang finally implodes. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that this project may be so expensive, so socially disruptive in the South, and so unwanted, that it might overwhelm South Korean society and institutional capacity.

To the extent that this catastrophe-in-waiting is floating around in the median voter’s head, the general hope/desire is for the Americans to hang around through unification so that a certain amount of the burden can be buck-passed to them. It’s unlikely that the Americans are really conscious of this or will actually do it, but Korean public opinion has not been made aware of this.

4. At the popular and elite level there remains the strong desire for the U.S. to keep on importing South Korean products.

Korea is still a classic developmental state – industrial policy is common (you’ve never seen so many 5-year plans outside of communist states); “strategy” ministries and agencies are ubiquitous; the media obsessively reports the trade surplus each month, and a political crisis would likely ensue if Korea ever ran a deficit. Additionally, the won’s appreciation is regularly manipulated, with Korea most definitely contributing to global trade imbalances. It requires an immense amount of effort to try and persuade Koreans to see the benefits of floating currencies which prevent massive imbalances. Even many Korean economists staunchly defend currency undervaluation and other mercantilist policies. The obsession with a current account surplus is almost theological.

This means the U.S. has to continue to be Korea’s “importer of last resort,” as Obama once said. Korea is not ready, at either the public or elite level, to move away from the export promotion model. Liberalization is coming slowly– President Lee won approval for two big free trade deals with the U.S. and EU. But the export instinct runs deep, and the Americans are the big market Koreans fixation. (Particularly when it comes to cultural exports; it is a national obsession that K-pop break out in the U.S.)

This interest is not consciously articulated on a frequent basis. But I have little doubt that most Koreans desperately want the U.S. to go on absorbing Korean exports at past rates and don’t know or care much about the deleveraging most American households are trying to pull off.

In short, while Koreans may not be as captivated by the U.S. Presidential Election process as their counterparts in countries like Australia and China, they continue to be heavily invested in the U.S.-ROK alliance, whether they are conscious of this fact or not.