US Foreign Policy Debate Draws Fire Abroad

In public, at least, China's leaders are only ever seen to be in agreement. So the spectacle of a US presidential debate seems strange to many, especially when the candidates are talking about China. Here is some reaction from the foreign policy hotspots President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney touched on in their third encounter.

US Foreign Policy Debate Draws Fire Abroad
Jewel Samad | AFP | Getty Images


After the final debate, China's tightly controlled state media published pictures and news reports briefly outlining the two candidates' arguments. These Chinese-language reports, aimed at the domestic audience, paid little attention to either candidate's comments on China or to Mr. Obama's description of the world's second-largest economy as an "adversary".

But in English-language reports aimed at overseas readers, Chinese state media hit back at the tough language with some bluster of its own.

The latest debate "has fallen into a vanity fair for China-bashers who compete to denigrate China, which in fact has little to do with China but everything to do with the losing competitiveness of the world's superpower", said one editorial from the official state news agency Xinhua, which was published only in English.

The same editorial lambasted Mr. Romney for being "unusually truculent toward China", but it also gave him credit for toning down his rhetoric on this occasion.

"It seems, fortunately, that the China-bashing game has not spun out of control, as the billionaire who used to profit handsomely from doing business with China knows that the largest and second-largest economies in the world . . . could not afford the backlash of tit-for-tat tariffs and eventually all-out economic war," it said.

During the debate, Mr. Romney did indeed appear to soften his stance from previous debates, after Mr. Obama said China was both an adversary and a potential partner in the international community.

"We can be a partner with China. We don't have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form," said Mr. Romney. "We can work with them and we can collaborate with them if they're willing to be responsible."

A separate scathing editorial from Xinhua highlighted the two countries' trade ties and said no matter who was elected, they would have to tone down their criticism of China once they were in office so they could deal with their country's "sclerotic inaptness toward China's inevitable rise".


In Iran, the debate was overshadowed by the tense power struggle in Tehran in advance of the presidential election next June, even though the country's nuclear program was one of the top issues under discussion.

Coverage of the debate by Iran's official and semi-official media was largely limited to news rather than commentary. This does not mean, however, that Iran's politicians are indifferent to the US presidential race, despite public statements that it does not matter who wins.

One university professor of politics said Iranian politicians were divided over who would be a better option for Iran, and doubted the debate had made things any clearer.

"Some believe a victory for Romney could suit Iran more because he is inexperienced and lacks legitimacy to keep up the international coalition against Iran [over the nuclear program]," he said. "But others believe Romney might stage a war – and hence prefer Obama."


The two candidates' reluctance towards military intervention in Syria was seen by some in Turkey as compounding the problems of the Ankara government, which has pursued a campaign for a buffer zone.

"Turkey continues to be frustrated and disappointed," said Suat Kiniklioglu, a former ruling party MP who now heads the Ankara-based Center for Strategic Communication, a non-government organization.

"There were expectations building up in recent months that following the US election there would be a more forthcoming US policy [on Syria], but now it is becoming increasingly clear that, regardless of who wins, not much will change after the election . . . This leaves Turkey alone."

Despite such frustrations, many officials in Ankara still root for Mr. Obama, who has cultivated a close relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, and has insulated the US-Turkish relationship from Ankara's tensions with Israel.

The Turkish government's position is also unpopular with the public. In a poll this week, 57 per cent of respondents opposed any intervention in Syria.


The left-leaning secular Egyptian activist and blogger Mahmoud Salem, who goes by the online moniker Sandmonkey, said the debate gave him no more clarity on which candidate was preferable.

"We didn't see any real distinction between Obama and Romney when it comes to foreign policy," said Mr. Salem, who ran for parliament last year as a secular candidate and has been vocal against the rising clout of Islamists. "I think it's a sentiment shared by a majority of Americans as well."

He complained that the candidates hardly discussed the dramatic changes taking place in the region: the Arab Spring revolutions that have shifted alliances and upended longstanding political elites.

"I'm not really sure any more which one will be better for us," he said. "Obama did very little to support the Arab Spring."

Still, after watching the debate, he said he feared Egypt's Islamists could take advantage of a Romney victory to expand their influence.

"A Romney presidency would mean that the Islamists would have a figure that they could turn into a real enemy of the state, a Bush II, which they would like very much because then they would turn this into some kind of Islam v the west or v imperialism."


One key foreign policy issue was notable by its absence in the debate.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney voiced their commitment to Israel and raised concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions, which Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, says is the biggest threat to Israel's existence.

But there was barely a mention about the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a main focus of US foreign policy in the past few decades.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political scientist, said: "It is not surprising given that there hasn't been any serious American involvement in the peace process for several years. Also, Romney is presumably not a candidate to pressure Israel on any of these issues."

Some Palestinians also criticized the issue's absence. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, was quoted by the Ynet website as saying: "It was a sin of omission, and it was clearly the elephant in the room." It was the "main issue in the region that is the key to peace".

Reporting by Jamil Anderlini in Beijing, Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran, Daniel Dombey in Istanbul, Borzou Daragahi in Cairo and Vita Bekker in Tel Aviv