As Asia watches developments in the White House race with a mixture of amusement and alarm, the region’s capitals must give some thought to what it all means for U.S. foreign policy and their bilateral ties. With the presidential primaries just swinging into action, the Republican and Democratic candidates will not be decided for several more months. But averages in American opinion polls so far tell us that Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton is still the most likely line-up for the final battle over the U.S. presidency.
There will be many more twists in the race. But, based on what we know so far, what might their respective policies in Asia look like? And how might the region respond to the emergence of a President Clinton or President Trump?
Clinton’s policies are relatively easy to predict. As secretary of state in President Barack Obama’s first administration, from 2008 to 2012, she was the architect and driving force behind the pivot or rebalance to Asia. In her current campaign to be the Democratic candidate, she has reaffirmed her intention to entrench and strengthen America’s strategic and military presence in Asia, in effect taking ownership of the Asian pivot and running with it.
In short, a Clinton presidency would be warmly welcomed by America’s allies and security partners. It would be a continuation of the current pivot to Asia, but with intent and resources in the eyes of those who claim that Obama lost interest in Asia, or else was distracted by the Islamic State militant group, during his second term.
It is also more likely that Clinton will want to be seen to be “getting tough” with China when it comes to the latter’s increasingly assertive and threatening behavior in the East and South China seas. This means more freedom of navigation patrolling operations by U.S. naval vessels in waters which China has claimed, accompanied by robust language, and an end to any consideration that a broad-ranging compact between China and the U.S. — or a G-2 — is the way ahead.
Reading Trump’s foreign policy is far more difficult, even if it will surely be much more interesting. His comments on external affairs seem more about bombast than policy: in a radio address last November he said “I will also quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS,” for example. Unlike the other candidates, Trump does not seem to have a foreign policy team of advisers. At this hyperbolic stage all one can do is piece together proclamations that may well form the basis of a more elaborate foreign policy, should he enter the White House.
One might be tempted to dismiss much of what “The Donald” says as opportunistic hot air by the self-proclaimed anti-establishment candidate. But he has consistently pursued one particular theme over several years that no doubt causes concern among America’s friends and allies in Asia.
Cutting off support
Back in 2000, Trump argued that the U.S. should not expend its blood and/or treasure overseas unless its allies and partners are also willing to do the same. As he said then, “Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops … is enormous. And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.”
That was 15 years ago. What about more recent times? In 2013, he said this: “How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment? When will they start to pay us?” This was no lonely thought bubble. In a CNN interview in January, he repeated the same line, and further argued that the U.S. should force China to take the lead in resolving the North Korean problem. If Beijing refuses, trade sanctions against China will follow.
Despite the temptation to ignore these seemingly extreme comments, there is actually an underlying and consistent rationale to them. Like Clinton, the majority of Washington’s policy community feel that a redoubling of American leadership is required to solve the world’s problems — even if there is deep agreement as to what form such leadership ought to take.
In contrast, Trump is advocating a foreign policy stance held by many libertarians in America that it is time to end the so-called military welfare by allies and partners, including in Asia. As this line of reasoning goes, the region has become dependent on American stewardship of the post-World War II liberal order and it is time to end their free-riding mentality. In an environment of strained fiscal and other resources, Washington can no longer afford the indulgence of remaining as the indispensable regional power. It is time for Asia to increasingly fend for what it wants and values.
If Trump were to win office, some wise-heads would surely tell him that there is no alternative to U.S. power. With China’s growing strength, there is no effective regional balance without a fully engaged American Seventh Fleet, naval forces with an area of responsibility covering the Pacific and Indian oceans. China’s defense budget is already three times larger than that of Japan, its closest Asian rival in terms of military spending, while the budget of the People’s Liberation Army represents nearly half of all military spending in East Asia, if America’s contribution is excluded.
Any significant American strategic or military withdrawal from Asia would surely put at risk open access to and the stability of sea lanes, especially if the maritime domain in East Asia became a Chinese lake. With two-way trade between the U.S. and Asia worth around $1.5 trillion each year, with almost all of it going and coming on ships, even Trump would come to understand that the American presence in Asia is not just a matter of national ego.
Even so, one can confidently surmise that the dealings of a President Trump with both friends and foes would be direct, blunt and possibly confrontational. Demanding upfront payment for security guarantees would hardly endear locals to the American presence on foreign soil, making it much more difficult for Asian allies and partners to host more U.S. military assets — which a more effective pivot would require. Trump’s tirades against Muslims, meanwhile, would undoubtedly undermine America’s standing in Muslim-dominated countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, even if such comments have been directed toward refugees from Syria and Islamic extremists.
When it comes to relations with China, there would certainly be diplomatic fireworks. Trump is not alone in criticizing China for alleged violations of trading rules and forms of mercantilism: currency manipulation, hidden subsidies to state-owned-enterprises, and regulatory barriers discriminating against foreign companies, to name three. But he stands alone in declaring that he will “tax China for each bad act,” and more generally, in his vow to use wide-ranging economic sanctions to force Beijing to better integrate into the liberal economic order by following rules such as those aimed at deterring economic espionage. He also insists he would use sanctions to force China to change policy in non-economic contexts, such as becoming more constructive about resolving the problem of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
If he makes it to the White House, Trump may step back from such simplistic and incendiary approaches simply because they will backfire. Economic punishments tend to have wide-ranging unintended consequences that end up harming American business and consumers, as well as Asian trading partners. After all, East Asia is a deeply integrated production zone, meaning that it would be impossible to avoid collateral damage when imposing economic penalties on one country.
There is also a possibly fatal contradiction in Trump’s approach. He promises to enlarge America’s economic leverage and use a bigger stick in Asia to achieve Washington’s objectives, yet he wants to step back and force Asian states to carry the costs. He cannot advocate self-help and enhance America’s capacity to shape outcomes at the same time.
A Clinton presidency might be unimaginative. But to many analysts, it would be vastly better than what Trump would offer for Asia. If the latter becomes president, we can only hope that he would learn quickly that foreign policy is more complicated than an episode of his television show “The Apprentice.”
It used to be said that East Asia’s obsession with security and trade means that most regional capitals would prefer to see a Republican than a Democrat in the White House. Unless the former is an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, Trump has managed to turn another convention on its head.