Skip to main content

10 big questions for Obama, Romney on Asia

By Patrick M. Cronin, Special to CNN
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Wed April 18, 2012
China's economic power, demonstrated by a Shanghai skyline, is a key factor changing the role of Asia, says Patrick Cronin.
China's economic power, demonstrated by a Shanghai skyline, is a key factor changing the role of Asia, says Patrick Cronin.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Patrick Cronin: Asian security issues have barely been discussed in campaign
  • He says issues such as North Korea and China's growing power need discussion
  • Cronin: How can diminished U.S. military meet challenges in the region?
  • He asks whether Japan, other nations, can play a larger role

Editor's note: Patrick M. Cronin is senior adviser and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington. He will be taking part in "The Pacific Century," the second in a series of forums on "Election 2012: The Global Challenge for the Next President." It will be streamed live at CNN Opinion Wednesday, April 18, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. ET.

Washington (CNN) -- Asian security may figure greatly in this year's U.S. presidential election because of urgent questions about North Korea and enduring concerns over how best to manage a rising China and preserve American influence.

In addition to Asia's looming role in the global economy, specific recent developments ensure that Asia will surface as an issue during the final months of the U.S. presidential campaign.

Asian security issues should be debated during the course of the election, and they will be framed in terms starkly different from those likely to be heard among Asian experts ruminating at a conference. While foreign capitals and analysts will scrutinize campaign rhetoric for clues, they would do well to remember that governing is different from campaigning.

Patrick Cronin
Patrick Cronin

President Obama's announcement last year of a pivot to Asia underscores a long-term trend in which the United States is gradually placing greater priority on the Asia-Pacific region. Economic power is shifting from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and emerging powers such as China and India are increasingly flexing their muscles as regional military and political powers.

Both Japan and South Korea, and Indonesia and its smaller neighbors in Southeast Asia, are all, to varying degrees, responding to these trends. Long-term plans are driven mostly by a rising China, uncertainty about America's long-term presence and increasing capacity for building local and coastal defenses and shaping regional institutions.

Obama's rebalancing of priorities toward Asia is designed to reassure allies and new partners, without overly provoking a China vital to the global economy.

For all its importance, however, the national political campaign has barely acknowledged the existence of Asian security. China has come under fire for currency manipulation and trading practices, and North Korea's Kim Jong Un managed to break into the campaign with his reckless missile launch. But the deeper, underlying issues of Asian security and their implications for the United States are awaiting more deliberate consideration.

For all its importance...the national political campaign has barely acknowledged the existence of Asian security.
Patrick Cronin

Both candidates should make it clear how America's future peace and prosperity are intertwined with the Asia-Pacific region.

Here are 10 questions vital to U.S. interests that the presidential candidates should debate:

1. How should the United States manage relations with China? How can the United States both engage in expanded trade and cooperation and hedge against China's growing military might? What is the best way to overcome China's increasing ability to deny U.S. military forces access to the East and South China Seas and old U.S. bases vulnerable throughout the Western Pacific? How can the United States retain overall cooperation while pressing China on military, political and economic issues? Does Washington risk being perceived in Asia as upsetting a delicate regional balance of power? How should the United States approach China's next leadership, including both its possible purging of Mao's Cultural Revolution but also its suppression of freedom? Does the recent ouster of the popular leftist politician Bo Xilai signify a moderating political trend or a pervasive corruption problem within the Chinese system?

2. How can the United States maintain sufficient military power and presence in the region? Recent budget cuts mean the U.S. Navy will remain under 300 ships and that air forces will not grow at the rates projected a year ago. Given budget constraints and limited basing options in the region, how can the United States retain a favorable military balance of power in the decade ahead and beyond? Should the United States further redistribute its military presence throughout the region, and, if so, where and how?

3. How will the United States make decisions over which arms to sell to Taiwan? China is pressing hard to put an end to America's longstanding practice of trying to maintain a balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. Improved cross-Strait relations are in the interests of all parties, and yet they also make it more difficult to prepare for any future deterioration in relations. Under what circumstances should the United States sell Taiwan new, advanced F-16 aircraft or assist it with stealthier defenses such as indigenous submarine production or cyberwarfare?

4. What is the best strategy for checking North Korean ambitions to build long-range missiles and nuclear weapons? How can the United States maintain deterrence and avoid miscalculation? Should missile defenses be strengthened? Should the United States allow South Korea to extend the range of its missiles from 300 to 800 kilometers? Should the United States and South Korea continue the move toward returning wartime operational control to Seoul by the end of 2015? What should the United States ask of China with respect to limiting North Korean provocations? Should the United States establish higher-level direct talks with North Korea's inner circle? What additional pressures, such as targeted financial measures, might be brought to bear on North Korean decision-makers?

5. Should the United States encourage Japan to take on more responsibility for regional security? For example, how far should the Japan Self-Defense Forces go toward shifting its focus on its southwestern islands as potential checks on growing Chinese military capabilities? Should Japan and the United States more actively pursue combined operational concepts such as Air Sea Battle, which would seek to deploy maritime and air and possibly ground forces in tandem to counter the capabilities of potential adversaries? Are bases in Japan, especially the stationing of Marines in Okinawa, sustainable? What should be the role of the United States in defending Japan in the event of a conflict with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea?

6. Should the United States play a more active role in ensuring peace in the South China Sea? What are the potential costs and benefits of building up the coastal defenses of nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam? How can the United States reinforce its alliance with the Philippines without provoking China or the region? Should the United States insist on a binding code of naval conduct for the region? Would ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea help? How should the United States work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as larger forums such as the more inclusive regional discussions of the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus?

President Obama's Asia team in a second term would probably lack its most able senior official: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Patrick Croniin

7. How can the United States best balance support for current reforms under way in Burma/Myanmar with lingering concerns about the role of the military and ethnic conflicts? Should the United States suspend sanctions as British Prime Minister David Cameron has recommended for the European Union? Can the United States make current reforms irreversible? How can the United States continue to maintain pressure on the government to follow through with, for example, democratic national elections in 2015?

8. How can the United States generally encourage allies and partners in the region to shoulder greater responsibility and expand security cooperation? For example, how can the United States work with others on energy and resource security for the countries of the region? What else might be done to shore up existing U.S. alliances, including with South Korea, Japan, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand? What other security partnerships, including with Singapore, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, deserve greater attention? Should the United States encourage India to play a more active role in East Asia? How far should the United States encourage allies and partners to improve multilateral security ties with one other?

9. How can the United States best protect an open global commons — the maritime, air, cyber and outer space arteries on which both commerce and security rest? With cyber and space threats far removed from the public eye, what should the U.S. government do, in tandem with the private sector and allies and partners, to ensure security in all these domains?

10. Finally, how can the United States best engage the Asia-Pacific region with respect to trade and finance, when the United States economy remains fragile, debt is increasing and unemployment remains high? Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership a realistic framework for an inclusive, "gold-standard" regional trading regime—that is, one that would not just lower tariffs at the border but also deal with crucial issues such as protecting intellectual property rights and protecting the private sector against state-owned enterprises? What other policies would best ensure that U.S. leadership, presence and engagement in the region rest on a strong economic foundation?

Obama and Romney administration policies for the Asia-Pacific would be apt to overlap more than they would differ. But when it comes to making hard choices and implementing policies, leaders matter. And here it is worth noting that President Obama's Asia team in a second term would probably lack its most able senior official: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has made her preference for returning to private life abundantly clear.

While these issues may not reveal a wide gulf in the views of the two candidates for president, they do serve to demonstrate America's growing stake in the Pacific Century.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick Cronin

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:34 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT