The United States’ pivot to Asia is not merely the product of the Obama Administration but also one that is shared on some level by the president’s challenger, the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney.
Driven largely by economics and the region as a “key driver in global politics,” as expressed by US State Secretary Hillary Clinton, the pivot remains one of the few bipartisan issues in Washington, DC.
However, the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind is what America’s pivot means, not only to interested Asian states but to Americans themselves. The re-allocation of military resources to the Western Pacific is unlikely to garner much in the way of wide public, and therefore political support, given a decade of conflict abroad. Where China is concerned, bringing jobs back to the US is typically the subject line.
It must be said that although America’s Asian foreign policy is far-reaching—countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and North Korea are included—at its core is the question of China: how will the US respond to China’s rise, what role will China play in America’s future, and what role will America play in China’s future? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are speculative at best.
If there had been an opportunity to answer them, it would have been at the third and final presidential debate, which saw Obama and Romney respond to questions on national security and foreign policy. As was expected, the subject of jobs and the economy was routinely visited by the candidates.
In an election largely dominated by domestic issues, it was not surprising that the candidates would rather argue how they were best suited to bringing back jobs to America; and no foreign policy issue tied more into jobs and jobs lost than China, which the president referred to as both an adversary and potential partner.
Romney countered by suggesting that China need not be an adversary of the US, and that it was possible for both countries to work together. Nevertheless, this more optimistic approach is premised on the notion that China plays by the same rules. The thought of Romney, on his first day in office should he win the election, declaring China a currency manipulator has raised fears of a trade war.
Given that this is an election season, however, observers of the presidential debates are perhaps better off not dwelling on what was said and by whom. Promises are easy to make and difficult to keep, and only until after November will Americans and observers abroad receive indication of the road the US intends to travel.
Challenges in Beijing
Not unlike the United States, China is also experienceinga leadership transition. Following the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on November 8th, Xi Jinping will replace Hu Jintao as the country’s newest president. Xi will not only inherit the world’s newest economic giant, he will also inherit a country in need of renovation.
While China’s rise over the past decade has been nothing short of remarkable, it has not been without troubling and serious problems and consequences. The divide between the rich and poor is among the highest in the world. Environmental destruction, corruption, and desire for better living conditions have also dominated the conversation.
Equally pressing (and with great societal repercussions) is the demographic discrepancy between males and females as a result of its “One Child” policy. Where a normal sex ratio is considered to be 103 to 107 boys for 100 girls, China’s ratio is at a staggering 117 boys for 100 girls. And none of this has yet to address the eventual need for political reform.
Although China continues to burn brightly and remains an economic giant, its attractiveness is marred by domestic concerns. Its economy is beginning to slow and its people are beginning to question their government. Mr. Xi, much like President Obama or Governor Romney, will have his work cut out for him once he assumes his position.
The “Big Two”
All of this is to say that the US foreign policy will ultimately be determined by the man in the office, and the decisions made in Beijing, and vice versa. The incoming US president, be it Obama in his second term or Romney in his first, must adapt to the reality presented before him, as with Xi. Regardless, one can already get some idea of the road ahead.
This much is true: if the US is to succeed in Asia, it must do so by cooperating and collaborating with China. However, this will also entail China to recognize and address US grievances, such as theft of intellectual property and accusations of currency manipulation.
American expectations are perhaps that China will prove to be not only an invaluable trading partner but a partner on the international stage. American access to Chinese and Asian markets could serve to pull the US out of its economic slump. The question, of course, is whether these new business opportunities will create jobs in the US or Asia. If China ends up playing by the same rules as everyone else, Obama and Romney would like to hope that Americans come out ahead.
As a consequence, however, smaller Asian nations seeking to adjust their foreign policy around the US and China are ultimately at the mercy of these two giants. Although America’s pivot to Asia can be seen as a lifeline for some of these smaller Asian nations seeking a counterbalance to China, they should be wary of expecting complete and undivided American support. US interests in the region are largely economic rather than security against China.
Of course, this is not to say that the US does not share the same concerns as many of these countries with regards to China; however, an American presence is not evidence of an American intervention. What must be made clear—and what is undoubtedly understood by regional state leaders—is that decisions made in Washington, DC, and Beijing will only serve to address the needs of their respective citizens.
The politics of the Big Two will dominate and dictate events throughout the Western Pacific and Asia as a whole. For the US, the return to Asia is about jobs, and the pursuit in restoring America’s economy may or may not align with the interests of China’s fearful neighbors. Still, many of these small countries may find their interest best served by aligning with the US, if only to provide some peace of mind at night.
(Khanh Vu Duc is a Canadian lawyer who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel)