Tonight both presidential candidates acknowledged the centrality of Asia to America’s interests. The Obama administration offers its “Asia pivot” as a foreign policy success story. Mitt Romney wants a bigger Navy to keep America’s commitments in the region credible and robust. According to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, 60 percent of the Navy’s warships will be located in the Pacific by 2020.
Not once tonight did anyone talk about what those ships are going to do when they get there.
Tonight’s foreign policy debate allotted less than 15 of its 90 minutes to Asia, a region with the world’s fastest economic growth rates and over half of its population. The only country receiving more than a passing mention was China, and even China was discussed only in economic terms.
How to handle the security relationship between the two countries with the world’s largest military budgets went unmentioned, as did the United States’ broader strategy in a region critical to American security interests, where the next president will have to make a series of tough choices and may well face multiple foreign policy crises.
There was no discussion of American policy on the Korean peninsula, where 28,500 American forces stand watch in a war that has not ended, and where our allies this weekend evacuated residents along the DMZ after North Korea threatened to retaliate against an activist group’s balloon launch with artillery fire.
There was no discussion of the recently announced plan to rotate more American planes, ships, and personnel through the Philippines, which in April sailed an American-made cutter into confrontation with China in disputed waters, and then suggested that America was obligated to assist in that confrontation under the terms of a 1951 mutual defense treaty.
There was no discussion of Taiwan, which asked the United States for over 60 new F-16 fighters and last year got a $5.8 billion upgrade to its old ones instead—a decision that the official Chinese press called “a despicable breach of faith”—or of the American “air-sea battle” concept, generally perceived to be a template for future conflict with China.
There was no discussion of whether America’s commitment to those who call for democracy and human rights—a commitment both candidates affirmed—can or should extend past Tunisia and Tahrir to Tibet, where over 50 people have set themselves on fire without producing the political change that a single self-immolation sparked in the Arab World.
Today the world’s attention is riveted on crises in the Middle East. Tomorrow’s flash points lie in Asia. Unfortunately, tonight’s debate did little to clarify how either candidate would handle a 3 a.m. phone call that comes not from Benghazi, but from Beijing.