Asia is wary of chameleon Romney

Greg Torode says the possibility of a Romney victory caught Asian officials off guard, but an actual win would cause headaches

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 3:52am

Should US President Barack Obama win re-election - as Electoral College predictions suggest he will, just - then long sighs of relief will be heard in staterooms across Asia. Not necessarily because Obama is hugely popular - although the energy he and his administration have brought to reasserting Washington's regional role is welcomed in at least several East Asian capitals - but simply because it removes nagging uncertainties.

For many months now, government officials, envoys and scholars across East Asia have quietly expressed the firm belief that Obama would smoothly secure a second term. It has been a faith fuelled in part by distance. The situation on the ground in the US, with its bitterly polarised and economically stressed voters, has never quite seemed so secure.

The faith was such that it sometimes appeared not enough due diligence had gone into researching former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or courting connections. Far more interest seemed to be expressed in possible replacements for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has signalled her intention to stand down.

Imagine the scramble, then, when Romney staged a strong showing in the first presidential debate and Obama's poll numbers plunged. "The phone never stopped ringing for about a week," said one East Asian diplomat in Washington. "We'd been warning HQ not to write off Romney but suddenly that was forgotten. It was a case of: 'I thought you said Obama was going to win!'"

Things have calmed somewhat, with leading US pundits predicting Obama will maintain his crucial lead to get him over the line.

But Romney remains a problem - a candidate who resists easy pigeon-holing. Not only has he shown a chameleon-like ability to shift from Republican moderate to conservative and back again, but his foreign policy platforms are sparking a great deal of head-scratching. For starters, his advisers run the full gamut from pro-engagement realists like Robert Zoellick to president George W. Bush's combative representative to the UN, John Bolton.

He is widely perceived as a domestic political creature and, as such, his foreign policies are still in an embryonic stage. He has, of course, put China on notice that he is prepared to risk a trade war by branding Beijing a "currency manipulator".

For all his small-government talk, he has also vowed to launch a naval expansion with a view to taking an even tougher line than Obama did with his vaunted Asia-Pacific strategic "pivot". Romney is still to explain how he might find the money, given his desire to cut both taxes and the US deficit.

It is certainly unclear whether he has heard warnings from countries surrounding China that, while they want continued involvement from Washington, they don't want to be forced to choose sides in a dangerous strategic competition.

For many envoys operating in turbulent times, a second Obama term brings uncertainty enough. A Romney administration presents fresh headaches - and a potential payday for Washington's lobbyists providing advice and access.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.