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Lack of debate over future US policy towards China ‘will weaken Washington’s role in Asia’

Although China has been subjected to relentless criticism in the US presidential election, there has been relatively little debate among the candidates on Washington’s future policy towards Beijing, and this will further weaken America’s leadership role in Asia, according to a US research report.

Broad concerns by the United States and its allies over China’s growing assertiveness have been overshadowed by uncertainties over a key regional trade deal and US commitments in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the report released on Tuesday in Washington by the East-West Centre.

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Citing prevailing views among American and Asian observers, the report said the election debates had made it more difficult for the future US president to define and implement coherent Asia policy amid perceived US weakness in the face of growing challenges from China.

“The challenges are widely seen as formidable and the path America will take is now seen as significantly more uncertain as a result of the election campaign,” the report concluded.

Its author, Robert Sutter, a professor at George Washington University, said the often incoherent campaign rhetoric by presidential candidates had complicated the US message to Asia, made it weaker on the whole and upset US allies and partners across the region.

He said China remained the main country of concern in relation to challenging US leadership in Asia and the relevant election discourse focused on how China was an unfair partner, and how the US needed to counter the negative features of China’s rise.

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“But China is basically secondary in concern and those concerns [about China] have been fairly moderate. China generally was not seen as an adversary; rather, it was depicted as neither an enemy nor a friend,” Sutter said.

Another author, Satu Limaye, director of the East-West Centre in Washington, said for Asian nations, the debate on Asia was part of a larger debate about America’s global role and what kind of US leadership was acceptable to the American people.

“Overall, the net impact of the debate and the reactions [from Asian countries] was quite detrimental to America’s leadership. It raises a lot of questions and buttresses ongoing questions about American leadership sustainability, commitment, focus and reliability,” he said.

Both presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have publicly denounced the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) accord, which was signed between the US and 11 Asia-Pacific nations early this year but excluded China.

Trump’s controversial proposals on burden-sharing between allies, nuclear weapons proliferation and North Korea have further shocked and alienated major US allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.

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“The TPP is seen as a critical part of US engagement policy in Asia,” Sutter said.

“It is widely held that the US rebalance is not attractive without the economic element, which makes them look like they are beefing up the security alliance with the US.

“No Asian nations [except Japan] want to be seen as choosing the US side in the security dimension for fear of antagonising China.”

In light of weakening US leadership and China’s assertiveness, all Asian nations were doing balancing acts and it was a very volatile and fluid situation in Asia at the moment, he said.

But both Sutter and Limaye said Beijing welcomed circumstances that lowered China’s profile in the US election rhetoric.

Beijing saw opportunities for Chinese gains in competition with the US for leadership in Asia as a result of the election’s negative impact on the credibility of American commitments to its Asian allies and partners, they added.

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“Chinese interlocutors are pleased that they are not in the hot seat and they are not going to have that kind of difficulty with the US, as they are secondary in the Asia debate. They are not concerned because they have a sense of their own importance, which does not need to be validated by the US government,” Sutter said.