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If the Republicans ran US-Asia relations...

Updated On: Jan 18, 2012

In this article, SIIA Chairman Simon Tay and SIIA research intern Rachel Ho discuss Republican dominance of worldwide media coverage on the US elections. Given that the Republican rhetoric has been more domestic-centred rather than focused on foreign policy, they ask what a 2013 Republican US presidency would mean for Asia.

This article was originally published in TODAY newspaper on January 18, 2012.

With the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries done, the Republican nominations are heating up. In deciding their candidate to face incumbent United States President Barack Obama, domestic issues and not foreign policy have been the focus. Yet, more than usual, the two are inter-linked, especially in relation to US-Asian ties.

When Americans decry jobs lost and unfair trade, many fingers point to Asia and especially China. As citizens ponder their future, the question arises of competition with China to be No 1 in the world.

Asians should look to the Republican nomination process not only as a partisan exercise but for what it shows of the mood among Americans. Moreover, given how Mr Obama's poll numbers have been slipping, it is by no means inconceivable that a Republican could win the elections later this year.

PLEDGE TO 'BEAT CHINA'

Until recently, the Republican race has been a dizzying array of "flavours of the day" with many unlikely candidates receiving their 15 minutes of fame. Now after the initial results, Mr Mitt Romney seems to be the favourite. The former Massachusetts Governor is known to be a relative moderate in his party but his foreign policy rhetoric on the campaign trail has hit some extreme notes.

Mr Romney argues America must be the indisputable, singular leader of the world and not just "one of several equally balanced global powers". He has pointedly complained that China has cost America millions of jobs and he has accused Beijing of currency manipulation.

China has responded to denounce that statement. Yet Mr Romney is not alone. Similar views have been voiced about China by other candidates. Mr Rick Santorum, for instance, has vowed to "beat China" in a trade war.

Perhaps the only moderate Republican on this issue has been Mr Jon Huntsman, previously Ambassador to China under Mr Obama. Yet his moderation and ability to speak Mandarin have not helped him - and, indeed, in some circles, have hurt his candidacy. Mr Huntsman has since dropped out of the Republican race and thrown his support behind Mr Romney.

NO ISOLATIONIST AMERICA

Almost all Republican candidates pledge to keep America strong and present across the world. Mr Romney has pledged to "reverse Mr Obama's massive defence cuts" and increase troop numbers by 100,000. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has said he would return US troops to Iraq, and more besides to prevent Iran from wasting the US' sacrifices in the recent war.

The only exception on this point is Mr Ron Paul, an unconventional Republican libertarian who has surprised with consistently solid poll results. Mr Paul envisages an America that would be "non-interventionist". His critics accuse him of "isolationism", arguing that pulling out of America's current international commitments would mean abdicating leadership.

So the good news for Asians who fear an isolationist America is that most Republicans, like Mr Obama, stand for the idea that American presence and engagement in the world and Asia should continue.

 

DIFFERING TERMS

The terms of engagement, however, differ. Mr Romney's views, for example, are quite different from those of the Obama administration. The Republican front runner suggests that foreign aid should be cut and the size of the US military enlarged to ensure it continues to be the greatest in the world.

Foreign aid has been a critical part of the Obama administration's tool box for dealing with difficult regimes, like in encouraging democratic reform in Myanmar and in talks with North Korea. On military size, Mr Obama's proposals combine modest cuts and a refocus on Asia. He will depend on a leaner military presence combined with the concept of "smart" power - a package of economic, political and "soft" persuasion.

The Obama administration policy to "return to Asia" has been welcomed by many and yet has already raised eyebrows in Beijing, where many suspect it to be an effort to balance and contain China's rise. What more if Mr Romney does win and upsizes the US military?

MERELY RHETORIC?

American pundits reassure Asians and themselves that rhetoric by the candidates on the campaign trail will not be translated into real policy. It is true that past candidates have made strong declarations about certain issues, only to quietly put them aside once they win.

But the fact that candidates neglect their promises does not deny their resonance amongst the voters. After all, this is the first US presidential election where there is a sense that China and Asia are not only rising but that Beijing may seek to usurp American leadership.

What is said on the campaign trail may not only raise temperatures in the US but also across the Pacific.

Author: 
Simon Tay and Rachel Ho
About the author: 

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, where Rachel Ho is currently a research intern.