The Realist Prism: When U.S. Politics Does Not Stop at the Water’s Edge

The Realist Prism: When U.S. Politics Does Not Stop at the Water’s Edge

Three separate incidents this week have all highlighted how the growing distraction in Washington over the upcoming U.S. presidential election is undermining U.S. diplomacy.

The first has to do with the territorial dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, possession of which confers exploitation rights to the lucrative fishing grounds and vast offshore hydrocarbon fields in the exclusive economic zone that surrounds them. The Japanese government earlier this week announced that it would buy the islands from the family that holds the deed to the property, raising tensions with China, which also claims the islands as the Diaoyou. Both countries are now sending naval forces to the islands, which raises the stakes if there is a violent incident, since Japanese vessels have been instructed to turn back ships entering the area.

So where does the U.S. presidential campaign come in? Because of President Barack Obama’s decision to skip the APEC summit meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, in order to address the Democratic National Convention, the U.S. president could not offer his "good offices" when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese President Hu Jintao met on the sidelines of the summit to discuss the fate of the disputed islands prior to this week’s heightening tensions. That is not to suggest that Obama, if present, would have been able to prevent the crisis from escalating. But the APEC summit offered a rare opportunity for a trilateral sit-down, one where the leaders of China and Japan were on "neutral territory." Instead, Obama’s absence effectively signaled that the U.S. hopes to put Beijing and Tokyo "on hold" until after Nov. 6. It also raises the question as to whether, in the event of a major crisis, the president would be willing to suspend his campaign, or whether his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, would take advantage of the distraction to press for electoral advantage.

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