Where are the US presidential candidates on China?

Watching the US presidential election unfolding from the vantage point of Asia can at times seem a little disheartening.  There's very little discussion among the candidates and potential candidates of the real challenges facing America here in the Pacific, just bombast and sound bites.  And this, despite the fact that China's rise, and its new assertiveness in the South China Sea, is arguably the most important foreign policy challenge the next president will face.

I see some of that reticence on display in the debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, where the discussion is all about the impact on American workers and Obama's supposed executive overreach, but not a single word said about America's important "pivot" to Asia and the need to counter China's growing economic clout, including Beijing's new Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, or AIIB.

This dearth of real debate on the US campaign trail was the topic of my most recent piece in The Edge Review, Asia's premier online magazine covering Southeast Asia.  Here's my column from The Edge, and I urge you to have a look at the entire magazine by downloading the app.

A defeaning silence on China

©The Edge Review 2015

In recent days the 2016 US presidential election contest has begun to take clearer shape, some 18 months before the vote. Each day, it seems, brings a fresh announcement from the latest contender or pretender hoping to succeed Barack
Obama in the White House.

Surprisingly, foreign affairs and national security issues appear to be moving to the forefront, with several pundits openly predicting 2016 will be a “foreign-
policy election”. Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, his opening to Cuba, the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS), the civil war in Syria and the fear of a revanchist Russia are all likely to be debated and dissected on the campaign trail.

But the next administration's biggest foreign policy challenge is unlikely even to warrant a mention from the would-be presidents: how to deal with a rising China and the threat that it poses to Southeast Asia.

Sadly, the silence is not really surprising. The US-China relationship is hugely complex, not easily summarized for bumper stickers and catchy TV sound bites.

In his losing 2012 presidential bid, Republican candidate Mitt Romney tried the “get tough on China” tack, repeatedly threatening that he would label China a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office. His repeated attacks on China for “cheating” and “selling counterfeit goods” so rattled Beijing that he was forced to dial back to a more tempered tone.

Obama was generally more measured. But he mainly used China as a foil to speak of America’s own failings – for example, describing how Chinese students were outscoring their US counterparts on international tests as a way to exhort taxpayers to spend more on public education.

This time around, China ought to feature more prominently as an issue.

A few foreign affairs analysts such as Fareed Zakaria have rightly noted that future global stability does not hinge on whether the Houthis seize power in Yemen or if the Iraqi army can retake Mosul. The motley rebels advancing on Damascus might overthrow Bashir al-Assad, but then Syria will become another failed state like Libya or Somalia and the world will grind on.

What does matter is whether China under President Xi Jinping rises peacefully as a superpower, adopting the accepted rules and norms of the international

system, or whether it rises belligerently and aggressively, unilaterally seizing territory it claims as historically its own.

There are troubling signs from the South China Sea that Beijing’s leaders are adopting the latter approach. China has been reclaiming land on some isolated island reefs and building airstrips that could allow its military to install missile batteries, resupply its fleet and perhaps declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the entire area. This has raised alarms within ASEAN, particularly among the rival territorial claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines.

In a conflict, how far would the US go to defend the Philippines, with which it has a mutual defence treaty? How much should it help Vietnam build up its maritime capabilities? Is China under Xi a US adversary or a partner? These are questions I’d love to see the presidential candidates address.

Dean Cheng, a security analyst with the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington and an expert on the South China Sea dispute, has a proposal that merits attention, which may be summed up as “white hull vs. grey hull”. Cheng says the US should consider basing some “white hull” US Coast Guard cutters in the Pacific, maybe Japan, as a way of signalling American resolve but without over-militarising the area with the “grey hulls" of Navy warships.

“What nobody wants is to introduce naval forces into the mix,” Cheng said. But the US Coast Guard is law enforcement, not military. "It’s at the invitation of the local government. It’s not militarizing the problem.”

Cheng’s idea and others deserve a real debate among our would be presidents. Instead, so far we get only finger-pointing rhetorical nonsense about “Who lost Mosul?” and whether there was a cover-up in Benghazi.

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is inarguably the best versed on Asia and China. As Secretary of State, she gave voice to the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia policy. She also rattled Beijing in 2010 by declaring at an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting that the US had a stake in the South China Sea.

I’m hoping Clinton will break the silence and articulate a clear policy for dealing with China’s rise in the 21st century. From the Republican side, just expect more bombast and sound bites.

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