Romney and the case of the lost Asia
10 Oct 2012|

Mitt RomneyMitt Romney’s speech to the Virginia Military Institute on 8 October was, as he said, his chance to lay out the ‘vision’ for US foreign policy under his presidency. But anyone living in Asia reading the speech would be struck by one glaring absence—there is, in the entire speech, only one sentence on Asia. Indeed, almost the entire speech concerns US global leadership (which Romney believes has waned under Obama) or the Middle East (where Romney believes, perhaps with reason, a historic opportunity is slipping from America’s grasp).

The one sentence concerning Asia says that Chinese assertiveness is having a chilling effect on the region. But, ironically, it follows immediately after a sentence critical of the Obama administration’s Asia ‘pivot’, because the policy tells the US’s oldest allies, in Europe, that Washington is pivoting away from them. What’s that supposed to mean? It sure sounds like Romney is intending to undo the pivot.

It’s probably unfair to judge Romney’s approach to Asia just from this one speech. But shouldn’t his vision statement say something about the radical changes being wrought in global power relativities and the regional order by the late emergence of half the world’s population into industrialisation? That’s what’s happening in Asia, and Australia would be ill-served by a figure at the helm in Washington who doesn’t see that, or the implications that flow from it.

Of course the world needs to be concerned by the struggle going on within Islam. And of course we should be encouraging the positive forces unleashed by the Arab Spring. Yes, we need to find a solution to Iran’s nuclear program. And yes, most assuredly yes, Australia has a direct interest in any plan that promises to regrow US global leadership. But Romney needs to get abreast of the transformational changes sweeping across Asia.

And, in any case, his speech is unconvincing on exactly how he’ll regrow US leadership. Obama believed—perhaps still does—that regrowing the US middle class was the key to restoring America’s position in the world. But he’s found out that regrowing a middle class is much easier said than done. There are other issues they agree on, and Romney might well share with Obama a belief that the US economy lies at the bottom of current US weakness. He certainly speaks of rebuilding the economy as an integral part of his approach to foreign policy, though his speech is skimpy on details.

On one specific point—his proposal to rebuild US naval capacity by committing to the construction of 15 ships and submarines per year—Romney is singing a song much loved by Australian strategists. Still, it’s not just naval capacity that the US needs in the Indo-Pacific; it needs a new strategy. Romney has a go at Obama in his speech saying that drones (hardware) have become the substitute for a national security strategy in the Middle East (software). Unless, he can come up with a new US strategy here in Asia—a strategy that repositions the US as the regional strategic centre of gravity moves a little further each year southwest—there’s a danger of repeating that failing in a much more important region.

Any president faces a learning curve on entering the Oval Office—Obama certainly did. Romney, who could still win this election despite what the polls are saying, needs quickly to get on top of his Asia brief. It’s a delicate time in Asia. A few mixed messages out of Washington could have unfortunate effects in the region.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user davelawrence8.