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 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT