Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Romney tests China policy

By David Shambaugh (China Daily) Updated: 2012-08-08 08:14

Republican's pervasive theme of bolstering US military power reminds of Cold War and could lead ties into muddled waters

As the US presidential election enters its final three months, Republican challenger Mitt Romney is beginning to define his foreign policy beliefs. Until recently, Romney had limited his comments on foreign policy to a combination of tough talk and platitudes, but now he is beginning to flesh out more detailed policies on different foreign issues and parts of the world.

The official website of Romney's campaign recently announced the assemblage of a large foreign policy advisory team and a series of policy statements on national security and different parts of the world. Romney's foreign policy advisers are largely a collection of recycled George W. Bush administration officials.

Based on the official website's description, what might a Romney administration China policy look like? First, it is worth noting that on China and Asia, as with virtually every other part of the world, one consistent theme is pervasive: increasing American military strength.

On national defense, for example, the Romney platform takes the administration of US President Barack Obama to task for slashing military spending and neglecting weapons' modernization, hinting that "weakness invites aggression". This suggests defense should somehow be exempt from budget cuts in the current fiscal austerity climate.

It is not that Romney wants to insulate and freeze the force from cuts, but he seeks to actually "grow" the military - adding nearly 50 ships to the navy and doubling the number of fighter squadrons.

This military-first mindset underlies the way the Romney team seems to approach every other foreign policy challenge - from Afghanistan and Iran to China and Russia. In each case, it is argued that American military strength will deter aggression. This simplistic zero-sum mindset is a throwback to the Cold War and is no substitute for nuanced policies to deal with today's complex challenges.

With respect to China, the Romney policy places a robust military and security presence first. While it does claim that "Our objective is not to build an anti-China coalition" and leaves the door open to Beijing for "becoming a responsible partner in the international system", the position paper predominantly takes a deterrence tack, emphasizing a potential China threat that must be met with US strength:

"In the face of China's accelerated military build-up, the United States and our allies must maintain appropriate military capabilities to discourage any aggressive or coercive behavior by China against its neighbors."

Romney's position proceeds from the premise that China seeks to dominate Asia and, concomitantly, exclude the US from the region: "China must be discouraged from attempting to intimidate or dominate neighboring states. If the present Chinese regime is permitted to establish itself as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific it could close off large parts of the region to cooperative relations with the United States and the West and dim hope that economic opportunity and democratic freedom will continue to flourish across East Asia."

The policy statement also more than hints that Romney would authorize sale of advanced F-16 C/Ds to Taiwan (something the Obama administration has thus far eschewed) when it argues: "The Department of Defense should reconsider recent decisions not to sell top-of-the-line equipment to our closest Asian allies. We should be coordinating with Taiwan to determine its military needs and supplying them with adequate aircraft and other military platforms."

The remainder of the China-Asia section, though, is not dissimilar from the "strategic pivot" policies that the Obama administration is already implementing in the region, if not more robust. One might describe it as "Pivot Plus".

Indeed, the Obama pivot finds its origins in the "strategic hedging" policies of the Bush administration. It is also no accident that the two lead members of Romney's Asia advisory team - Aaron Friedberg of Princeton University and Evan Feigenbaum of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - served as senior officials in the Bush administration and were among the masterminds of the strategic hedging policy.

On other parts of the world, such as Africa, the Romney vision labels China a "global competitor". Romney has also argued on the campaign trail that he would "label China a currency manipulator on Day 1". The Romney campaign's statement on China does include a prominent role for human rights - not only concerning political dissent, but a broader conceptualization of promoting civil society. Indeed, assertive promotion of democracy pops up in the discussion of Latin America, Asia, Russia and the Middle East.

While this is largely drawn from official campaign sources, and it must be remembered that tough campaign assertions often fall by the wayside when a candidate enters office and confronts reality, the Romney campaign's description of China does offer an important prism into the thinking of Romney's advisers - if not Romney himself.

Much of it is tough talk, not dissimilar from the election-year rhetoric of Bush in 2000. But when taken together with the Obama administration's pivot to Asia, which is primarily motivated by the strategic uncertainties associated with the rise of China, relations between China and the US could be headed into contentious waters in the years ahead.

The writer is professor of Political Science & International Affairs and Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University.

(China Daily 08/08/2012 page8)

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