Hurricane Sandy has thrown the US presidential election into havoc, pushing foreign policy issues into the background and almost certainly ending further campaign debate on Asia.
The storm is dominating the end days of the campaign with both sides changing strategies to concentrate on weather-related reaction.
US President Barack Obama and his Republican rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, were canceling many live appearances and speeches and TV advertisements.
“They are likely glued to the weather coverage, trying to figure out which way this hurricane will make the election winds blow,” Princeton University history professor Julian Zelizer said.
Issues, such as trade with China, are unlikely to influence undecided voters anything like as much as the way candidates handle the so-called “Frankenstorm” now lashing the US’ east coast.
“The crisis offers an opportunity for Obama to act presidential in a way for which some voters are thirsting and to demonstrate the kind of command that has often been lacking,” Zelizer said.
Meanwhile, Romney must watch to see what people think of Obama’s response “because any statement from him could easily be seen as political and offer little evidence of his own ability to lead.”
Obama has canceled events in swing states to monitor the storm from the White House.
Romney, who has also stopped traveling, has turned his offices in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia into collection centers for storm relief supplies.
The latest polls give Romney a slight lead, but the race remains far too close to call with commentators increasingly wondering if the storm might become the deciding factor.
With the storm taking over election rhetoric, it appears that the final words on Taiwan in this campaign came last week at the “China Policy Debate” organized by the Committee of 100 and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
National security adviser to the Obama campaign Jeffrey Bader and co-chair of Romney’s Asia-Pacific region working group Aaron Friedberg were asked what their candidates would do about arms sales to Taiwan in view of improved cross-strait relations.
Bader said that the Obama administration had put a great deal of emphasis on building a strong relationship with the leadership in Taiwan.
“We have handled the relationship well in the sense of giving confidence to [President] Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九),” he said.
He said that a decision had not yet been made on selling long-requested F-16C/D aircraft to Taiwan and that the administration would be guided by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the Department of Defense.
Friedberg said that Taiwan faced a growing challenge to its ability to defend itself given China’s sustained buildup aimed directed at it.
“Governor Romney has specifically supported the sale of the F-16C/Ds because that is what the Taiwanese have requested,” he said.
“The way that Taiwanese domestic politics have played out thus far [has] led to a smoothing in the relationship with the mainland, but I don’t think there is any guarantee that is going to continue to be the case,” Friedberg said.
“Taiwan is a democracy and there are many people with different views. I don’t think there are many that actually support independence, but there are those who would support policies that are different from those that are currently being pursued,” he said.
“In the long run, China is not going to get what it wants from Taiwan simply by deepening economic relations and pressure. It is not going to be able to get it peacefully. And so I think there is some reason to be concerned in the longer term about how it is going to play out. But for the time being, certainly the trend has been towards stability and that’s all to the good,” Friedberg said.
Bader said it was important to appreciate what Ma had done with China and that the great risk of conflict had been taken off the table for the foreseeable future.
It was important, he said, that the US provided Taiwan with the means to “deter and dissuade” China from aggression but the thought that Taiwan could compete with China in an arms race was an illusion that Asia watchers in the US should not have and that “frankly, people in Taiwan do not have.”
Friedberg said that no one who seriously studied the problem thought Taiwan would have the capacity to defend itself on its own from China, but that it needed to be strong enough to resist Chinese attack and to make itself a difficult target.
Ultimately, he said, Taiwan would have to hope that there would be peaceful resolution and that it could count — if needed — on the help of the US.
He said that it could become more difficult in the future to sustain the “status quo” “as China’s power continues to grow.”
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