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The Return of China Neocons: 2012 US Elections

Aug 23, 2012

As the national conventions loom ahead, Americans prepare to choose the next president on the basis of economic issues. But it is the return of the neoconservatives that will overshadow the discourse on foreign policy – and China.

When President Barack Obama arrived in the White House, nine of ten Americans disapproved of the direction of the nation after the two terms of George W. Bush. Obama was able to reduce the number of the dissatisfied, but not the trend. Even today, some 75% of Americans disapprove the direction of the nation.

According to polls, Americans have been split by Obama’s policies since summer 2008, despite very high initial hopes. In the race for fundraising, President Obama was superior until summer 2012. Now the Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, has gained a substantial cash advantage.

On the basis of daily tracking polls, most Americans would have voted for President Obama until summer 2012. Today, a narrow majority of Americans say they would vote for Romney rather than Obama.

Most polls were conducted before Romney made Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, his running mate. Ryan may deliver the conservatives and the Tea Party. But to win the presidency, Romney will need the support of the independent voters who are fiscally conservative but social moderates.

Despite a huge demand for a middle-of-the-road Republican campaign, the conservative gaffes of the nominees and the return of the neoconservatives in Republican foreign policy may risk the success of the Romney-Ryan ticket.

More of the same

In the U.S. 2012 election, China's continued growth, amidst U.S. and Eurozone debt crises, and the issue of fair trade policies, has raised concerns among U.S. policymakers. Both parties support the Obama administration's 2011 strategic pivot toward the Pacific region, which has escalated military deployments in the area and includes efforts for a new regional trade pact that does not involve China.

President Obama came into office seeking a competitive and cooperative relationship with China. In 2009, his administration launched the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue for an expanded dialogue of trade, security and other issues. Nonetheless, the president has criticized China on its currency policies. Pirated and counterfeit goods have also been a source of contention.

During his 2012 State of the Union address, Obama announced the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate "unfair trading practices in countries like China."

The Obama administration has also brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate of President George W. Bush's administration.

Until recently, the platforms of the two campaigns did not look that different in terms of foreign policy, national security and the policy toward China. However, the situation has changed.

The neoconservative return

When the Romney campaign released its initial roster of foreign policy advisers in October 2011, Romney gave a vocal but thin defense of American exceptionalism. However, the speech made him vulnerable in both domestic economic policy and foreign policy.

Romney’s campaign is predicated on the idea that, as a successful businessman, he knows how to revive the U.S. economy. However, the speech recommended increasing the number of warships far more than the Navy itself asked for, boosting the size of the military by 100,000 troops, placing a missile defense system in Europe and stationing two aircraft carriers near Iran.

Essentially, Romney vowed to increase the military's budget by an astounding $2.1 trillion over the next decade, which contradicts the goals of his economic policy. The execution would contribute to America’s massive debt, which is now close to $16 billion.

Seven of ten of Romney’s foreign policy advisers used to work for President George W. Bush. Unsurprisingly, critics of this foreign policy vision have already dubbed it the “more enemies, fewer friends” doctrine. It is reminiscent of the Bush unilateralism.

After being branded as too liberal by conservative GOP activists during the 2008 campaign, Romney opted for an alignment with the neoconservative hawks to protect his right flank. He may have been too successful.

Republican foreign policy-divide

Not only are many from the neoconservative wing of the party, but they are also eager supporters of the emerging containment policy against China.

Romney promotes a U.S. policy toward China that advocates strong military capability in the Pacific, deepening cooperation with India and other regional allies, a strong defense of human rights, and “incentivizing” China to pursue more accommodative trade policies. In an October 2011 Republican debate he said that he would issue an executive order declaring China a currency manipulator on his first day of his presidency, unless China "changes its ways."

Last June, the case of Chen Guangcheng split Romney’s foreign policy team, which was swept by sharp disputes. Evan A. Feigenbaum, a co-chairman of Mr. Romney’s Asia-Pacific working group and a former State Department official, favored a “more calibrated approach.” In contrast, Aaron L. Friedberg, another co-chairman and Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security aide, argued for a more aggressive response. Friedberg favors a hard line on China.

After the split, the moderates of the Romney team remain concerned that the old neo-conservative “Cheney-ites” will win out moderate voices.

Recently, Paul Ryan, too, has begun to criticize China as a currency manipulator, speaking out against the country’s trade policies with the same sharp rhetoric that his new running mate, Mitt Romney, has used for months. And yet, in 2010, when the House voted on the Currency Reform Fair Trade Act (which would have imposed tariffs on China), Ryan was among the 79 congressmen who opposed the measure.

The Romney team also includes a number of neocons who continue to believe that just as the Iraq War was necessary so is the containment of China, including Eric Edelman, a top official at the Pentagon under Bush, who has forcefully spoken for the AirSea Battle Plan in the South China Seas – a doctrine that Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright has criticized for “demonizing China.”

It’s the economy

Instead of renewing the foundation of Republican foreign policy – a goal that many party loyalists would seem to support – the goal of Romney’s team appears to be to reframe the Bush unilateralism.

During the Republican primaries, the campaign of Jon Huntsman, former ambassador to China, advocated “a more judicious approach toward foreign entanglements.” Huntsman advisers included realist Republicans, such as former George H.W. Bush national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Council on Foreign Relations chair Richard Haass.

After the rapid rise and decline of the Huntsman campaign, Romney may have been right in calculating that to win the nomination, he had to veer right. But what may be good for the Republican right may not be supported by the American voter.

According to polls, almost 90% of Americans will choose the next U.S. president on the basis of four priorities issues: jobs, budget deficit, health care and social security.

Neither Iraq nor China figures in this list of priorities.

Dan Steinbock is Research Director of International Business at the India, China and America Institute

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