Many political commentators have noted the clear similarities between the foreign policies of President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, and recent disputes over the South China Sea only strengthen this perception.
The Romney campaign has articulated a number of key policies with regard to China. On its website, the campaign states that ‘the United States should maintain and expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific’, adding that ‘Mitt Romney will also pursue deeper economic cooperation among like-minded nations around the world that are genuinely committed to the principles of open markets through the formation of a “Reagan Economic Zone”’, in order to strengthen relations with other countries in the region. Each of these policies should be viewed in light of the Republican candidate’s fascination with all things Reagan as well as his overarching vision of an ‘American century’ to counter what he perceives as an apologetic foreign policy from President Obama. Indeed, in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal in February, Romney attempted to demonstrate weaknesses in the Obama administration’s approach to China by accusing the President of ‘almost begging it to continue buying American debt so as to finance his profligate spending here at home.’ This is a key example of Romney’s attempt to present the President as not only weak, but also supporting the strength of other nations at the expense of the United States. Instead, Romney suggests that the United States should ‘maintain a strong military presence in the Pacific.’
The article goes on to suggest that the administration has been hesitant in approaching the problem of human rights abuses in China. The recent case of Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese civil rights activist who escaped from house arrest in April, does seem to demonstrate a measured approach from President Obama. Refusing to speak about Chen specifically, the President instead argued more broadly that, ‘We think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalises its own system’ while reaffirming that, ‘we’re very pleased with all the areas of cooperation that we’ve been able to engage in.’ The statement also included a reminder that the human rights was a frequent feature of US talks with China.
This attempt to balance positive economic relations with criticism of human rights abuses may have left the administration open to further criticism from the Romney campaign, but both Romney and the President have similar policies on China in other contexts. A dispute over an area of the South China Sea between China and the Philippines is an interesting example of this. Last week, President Obama articulated sympathy for the President of the Philippines in the dispute, and the US has taken steps to reassert its influence in the Pacific. These measures include the strengthening of relations with other powers in the region, such as Australia, in addition to a deal facilitating the movement of US military personnel across the Philippines and improvements in Philippine defensive equipment.
While these details suggest a stark contrast between Romney and Obama, the overall picture is one of similarity. An emphasis on building relationships with other countries to limit China’s influence, combined with some form of limited military measure as a deterrent. These are a few of the ideas suggested by Romney both on his website and in his piece for the Wall Street Journal. Despite this, the debate over Iran has already demonstrated that Romney will likely continue to criticise current policy in an attempt to distance himself from the President.