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Romney's views on Asia troubling

Publication Date : 03-09-2012


With the Republican presidential nomination his, Mitt Romney still gives observers reason to be nervous about how he will engage the world. The few utterances in his speech about America's allies and adversaries are clearly intended more as a vote-getting contrast to President Barack Obama than any attempt to cohere foreign policy. On Asia, he was silent, beyond asking pointedly whether the US should borrow a trillion dollars from China, and warning that Obama's energy policy would send jobs to China.

His previous threat to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, if elected, sounds little more than bravado. He seems behind the curve, as the yuan has appreciated, according to a Washington think-tank, from being 31.5 per cent undervalued in 2008 to being 7.7 per cent undervalued last May. China has always insisted that its currency will rise according to its economic dynamics. The confrontation Romney seems to have in mind could trigger a trade war that would damage not just the world's two biggest economies but other nations too.

Romney seems to offer little that is different from what Obama is trying to achieve. His "Reagan Economic Zone" sounds very much like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Obama has expanded by three more countries to 11, in negotiating an enlarged free trade arrangement. Romney's proposal may prove a useful counterweight, especially for small regional countries, against the giant Chinese economy, but given his somewhat negative view of China, it risks becoming a futile attempt to exclude and isolate Beijing. So, while he might burnish his free trade credentials, he runs the risk of becoming a trade warrior.

In security terms, certainly, his Cold War-like stance is jarring. He would resume arms sales to Taiwan among other strategic proposals aimed unmistakably at China. In counter-weighting the rising military might of China, a Romney administration should guard against a return to the big-power rivalry that made Southeast Asia its battleground a generation ago. The kind of new balance MrObama is trying to fashion with his strategic "pivot to Asia" is hard enough to achieve without gratuitous sabre-rattling. While countries in the region may be heartened that a Romney-led America would share an interest in navigational freedom and peaceful resolution of resource disputes, the South China Sea simply has too many hazardous shoals for an easy resolution.

At best, observers might hope that Romney's statements are no more than campaign rhetoric. If elected, he is likely to find reality quite different and change tack accordingly. On the face of it, though, his Asia pronouncements are hardly reassuring.


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