The GOP and Foreign Policy in Asia

A year from now, the American people will have elected their president for the next four years.

Looking at the polls, President Obama’s chances for re-election are entirely dependent on the Republican candidate, with his chances being “good” against someone like, say, the Libertarian Ron Paul, to “maybe” against Mitt Romney, although the former Massachusetts governor, with a reputation for radical changes in position on issues as the political winds blow, might face some resistance or ambivalence from his more conservative base.

But as the interminable televised Republican debates have demonstrated, popularity can rise and fall almost overnight. A year from now, who knows what the playing field will look like? It could be the pizza czar, Herman Cain or the former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich challenging Obama for the White House.

What can be predicted with some certainty, however, is that each Republican candidate has tackled foreign policy in debates, adopting similar but sometimes distinct positions. It is easy to say that Republican foreign policies will differ from Democratic policies, but what about the positions of individual Republican candidates?

When it comes to China, Gingrich, Romney, Cain and Texas governor Rick Perry have expressed similar but differing opinions, a shared belief is that China is equally a concern to national security as well as an economic opportunity. Where views differ is in regards to how candidates’ approach the issue. Assuming one of Republican candidates goes on to win the presidential election, what does that mean for China and Asia as a whole?

Taking a stand

Beyond the get-tough language of these particular four candidates, each has taken a position on China with respect to the economy and national security. Gingrich, often considered the intellectual of the party, maintains his position on continued trade with China, choosing instead to tackle China’s human rights violations. Similarly, Cain argues that the only way America can challenge China is to compete and outgrow them economically, while protecting the US from future Chinese cyber-attacks.

In the spirit of free market economics and capitalism, neither Gingrich nor Cain strays far from the ideological center. Advocating increased trade and competition can only be regarded as a positive step forward towards revitalizing America’s current economic slump. In their view, the key to challenging China’s rise is for America to become productive again. Cain, however, takes it a step further by promising to confront China on its cyber-attacks and espionage activities against the US government and American companies.

On the other hand, the perennial Republican challenger and frontrunner, Mitt Romney has argued that he would target China’s currency manipulation practices. For there to be a positive and healthy trade relationship between both countries, he argues, China would have to play by the rules. Failure to do so would invite a response and a potential trade war—a trade war that, according to Romney, has already begun.

Extrapolating talking points

A solid indication of things to come, or is this the typical rhetoric one could expect during an election cycle? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Ideology is oftentimes tempered by reality. The onetime German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was once quoted, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Politicians will work with what they can get, take what they can, and move on.

So, by next fall when the dust settles, should the American people elect a Republican president, what can Asia expect from the White House? To be sure, American foreign policy in the Pacific will be an extension of its policy with China. However, analysts will be hard-pressed to predict the future, not because the GOP doesn’t have a vision for America with China, but because there are so many to choose from.

Beijing and national capitals in the Pacific are better off sitting back and watching these elections unfold. It is best to look past the rhetoric and wait until the president assumes his or her seat in the White House, for only then will he or she be confronted with reality. It is easy for candidates to say they will do this and do that, but responsibilities of governing a nation will prove sobering.

What can be assumed with some certainty is that American foreign policy in Asia will be a reflection of the reality on the ground, as has been proven by at least the last two prior presidents, George W Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom promised a hard line on China only to be forced into pragmatism when in office.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law. He serves as President of the VDK Law Office and the VDK Investment Consulting Group.)