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 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT