Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Three Reasons Why the Candidates Should Be Talking About Asia

And why the aren't talking about it already.

GettyImages-501529478 (1) 960
GettyImages-501529478 (1) 960

Isn’t Asia supposed to be where America’s future is written? That’s certainly what we’ve been told over the past few years. Thus, it’s surprising our presidential aspirants debate our policy for the region only minimally. Why is this? Three reasons jump out.

For one, Asia looks stable compared to the Middle East and even Europe, given Putin’s recent aggression.

The most consequential threat to Asian peace and order is China’s rise -- or, more precisely, the way in which China is seeking to reclaim its primacy in Asian affairs is destabilizing. But a China threat still seems distant, and that is how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants it to be. The CCP does not want to scare other powers into a strong and fulsome response. Thus, China’s military modernization has been slow and steady: a new missile is rolled out here, an advanced submarine there, never quite enough to galvanize a counter-veiling coalition.

Isn’t Asia supposed to be where America’s future is written? That’s certainly what we’ve been told over the past few years. Thus, it’s surprising our presidential aspirants debate our policy for the region only minimally. Why is this? Three reasons jump out.

For one, Asia looks stable compared to the Middle East and even Europe, given Putin’s recent aggression.

The most consequential threat to Asian peace and order is China’s rise — or, more precisely, the way in which China is seeking to reclaim its primacy in Asian affairs is destabilizing. But a China threat still seems distant, and that is how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants it to be. The CCP does not want to scare other powers into a strong and fulsome response. Thus, China’s military modernization has been slow and steady: a new missile is rolled out here, an advanced submarine there, never quite enough to galvanize a counter-veiling coalition.

Beijing’s territorial aggrandizement has been more of the “salami slice” variety rather than Putin-style land grabs. It is only in the realm of cyberspace that Americans can actually feel China’s aggressive behavior. And sure enough, the one China-related question our presidential candidates have been asked is: how would you protect our cyber-networks?

The other major threat emanating from Asia is North Korea. But while Pyongyang may pose more of a clear and present danger than many imagine, somehow the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran seems more urgent.

The bottom line is that unlike the Middle East, the Asian order is not collapsing, and there is as much good news about economic dynamism and aspiration as there is about Asian security threats. Our political system debates the clear and present rather than the seemingly more distant threat.

This leads to point two: the United States does not usually respond to looming threats; rather, it responds when there is a crisis.

Here is some historical evidence for that proposition. President Theodore Roosevelt knew that the growth in power of Imperial Japan was a problem. But Pearl Harbor happened in 1941 while his cousin Franklin was president, and America was still ill-prepared for the fight to come. FDR had a difficult time convincing the American people that the rise of fascism in Europe mattered to U.S. security. It took several acts of aggression by the Soviets until America gave up hope of post-war cooperation, and organized itself for the Cold War. Americans can be easily lulled into complacency about great power threats, given their location oceans away from the trouble spots of Eurasia.

Point number three: talking about Asia policy is too hard.

A well-conceived Asia strategy is very difficult to craft, and even harder to implement. It requires all the tools of statecraft: economic engagement and coercion; military might; and major diplomatic initiatives. Furthermore, all of this has to be put in place before a crisis materializes.

U.S. statecraft in Asia also requires a good sense of how the continent fits into the broad picture of our geopolitical interests. For example, a collapsing Middle East deeply impacts Asia. A new generation of jihadis are returning to China, India, and Southeast Asia, after several years of fighting in Iraq and Syria. Most northeast nations depend upon the Persian Gulf for large percentages of their oil and gas imports. Just as Asia’s global players were concerned about the United States getting bogged down in Iraq under President George W. Bush, U.S. credibility was harmed when President Obama overlooked his stated chemical weapons “red line” in Syria.

At a domestic political level, it takes quite a bit of skill to explain to Americans what policies are needed to prevent bad things from happening in Asia. Terms like “balance of power,” “sustained economic leadership,” and “deterrence,” are too esoteric for a public watching Paris’ recent night of horror and facing jihadi attacks on the U.S. homeland.

There is no little irony that the very foreign policy area that the Obama administration wanted the public to be debating — the Asia-Pacific — is largely absent from the primary stage. One lesson in all this is that future presidents should stay away from announcing “pivots” and “rebalances.” Americans need to know that we will be engaged in Europe and the Middle East for a long time to come, even as we engage more firmly in Asia. Indeed, to remain a superpower, the United States must maintain favorable balances of power on both sides of the Eurasian landmass and in the Persian Gulf.

Given these realities, journalists and moderators may want to ask presidential candidates a question of a geostrategic nature: “How would you craft a strategy for the Middle East that improves our position in the Asia Pacific?” Let’s see how forward-looking and geopolitically minded our future commander-in-chiefs really are.

The right questions can elevate our debate beyond its current straw-man-centric nature. For example, whether Assad remains in place is not an entertaining abstraction or a foil for a self-referential debate about who “supports regime change” and who does not. Rather, the question of who remains in power in the Middle East matters for the global balance of power. Our Asian friends surely have their own concerns about an emergent Russian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Iranian axis in the Levant, and about who will be the ultimate power brokers in the Gulf. We would be wise to consult them as we act in the Middle East.

Indeed, now that the public and most of the candidates are focused on national security threats from the Middle East, there is opening to press them on their broader geopolitical approaches. Dealing with a world order under threat in several critical regions demands nothing less from those who aspire to leadership of the world’s sole superpower.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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