The continent the candidates forgot
Asia has warranted few mentions in the U.S. campaign. So much for the much-heralded 'pivot.'

Article Highlights

  • The obsession over the South China Sea appears not to impinge on the thinking of either candidate

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  • If sequestration cuts another $500B from the military budget, there will be even less capacity to maintain US presence in Asia

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  • The next administration needs to have a clear Asia policy in place on January 20

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While the economy has dominated this year's U.S. presidential election, the near-total lack of discussion about global issues raises questions about how Governor Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama will deal with the world starting next January. In particular, one might have expected slightly more time devoted to Asia during the campaign, given the need for a real economic recovery in America. One thing is becoming clear, however: Whoever wins, the Obama administration's vaunted strategic pivot to Asia may not survive much past November.

That pivot, announced with great fanfare in November 2011 although still vaguely defined, was supposed to realign America's strategic focus with current challenges. The U.S. would devote more military resources to Asia to help balance a rising China that is growing more aggressive toward its neighbors. Meanwhile, Washington would bolster trade and commercial ties with fast-growing economies in the region.

There was always a heavy degree of hype about this idea. And now it is apparent that either candidate would go into the next presidential term with other priorities that would supersede the pivot, especially in the Middle East.

With both candidates pledged to remove American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, it is clear that at least half of the next presidential term will be concentrated on ending the war there and ensuring that the Taliban do not make a comeback. Also looming on the horizon is Libya. There are strong reasons to believe that, should President Obama be re-elected, the first year or more of his second term will be consumed with investigations into what happened during the attack that claimed the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens.

As a result, except for Mr. Romney's attack on Chinese currency devaluation and predatory economic practices, such as stealing intellectual property, the world's most populous region was eerily absent from the past 10 months of presidential and primary debates. Neither Mr. Romney nor Mr. Obama expressed any worries about economic slowdowns in India or China, or Japan's continued failure to grow its economy. No mention was made of North Korea's continued belligerence or recent crackdown on senior military figures. The obsession over the South China Sea that has animated Asia analysts for months appears not to impinge on the thinking of either candidate.

The fact that American elections tend to be fought on domestic economic issues only partly explains, and doesn't entirely excuse, this lapse. Asia is a major part of America's economic equation. Neither candidate discussed free trade or the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral free-trade agreement, either to support or criticize it. Neither gave an indication whether a free-trade push in Asia will be part of his agenda. Mr. Romney signaled a harder line toward China on economic issues, but neither candidate addressed the question of whether China remains the most important American relationship in the Indo-Pacific region.

Perhaps this is because Asia policy is not particularly contentious in Washington. While there are degrees of separation between Democrats and Republicans, most views are fairly well aligned. Yet nuances are important. Both the Clinton and Obama administrations initially put China at the center of their Asian policies, only to be disabused of the notion that a special relationship could be created. The Bush administration started with a clear focus on allies and friends in the region, yet it eventually found itself focusing more on Beijing to secure support for the war on terror or the Six Party Talks.

It would have been instructive to hear what Mr. Obama plans for another four years, given that his signal non-Middle Eastern foreign policy initiative has been the pivot. Similarly, Mr. Romney could have given a hint as to how he sees the region, and whether he will privilege current partners such as Japan and South Korea over prospective (yet unlikely) partners such as China. He came closest by stating that it would be up to China to determine what kind of relationship it will have with the United States, based on its behavior.

Perhaps this reticence on the part of both candidates is an indication that America's policy in Asia will be largely stay-the-course over the next four years. However, steady-as-she-goes won't be sufficient for some new challenges. Not least, if sequestration cuts another $500 billion from the military budget, there will likely be even less capacity to maintain American presence in the vast region.

The next administration needs to have a clear Asia policy in place for January 20. America's allies need to know what Washington's priorities will be over the next four years and will be waiting to hear how military budget cuts will impact American commitments. Countries moving along the democratic path, such as Indonesia, or those struggling with domestic liberalization, like Burma, need to know what kind of support Washington will provide them. And China has to have a clear understanding of what kind of relationship the new administration expects.

The next four years will be difficult enough, with a likely nuclear Iran, aborted Arab Spring, and messy Afghanistan withdrawal. A muddled Asia policy will only make things worse.

Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin



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