Asia on alert

ASIA ON ALERT
Derwin Pereira considers what Asians will look for when Clinton meets Trump in the US presidential debate

Published date: Sep 26, 2016

By Derwin Pereira for the South China Morning Post

M onday’s debate between American presidential contenders Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be conducted over their contending visions for the United States. However, since the country is also the pre-eminent global power, that debate cannot but touch on its standing in the world.

For Asians, America’s global position depends on at least three interlocking issues. They are its relations with China, the most important bilateral relationship for both powers; the role of the US in furthering global trade; and the degree to which the US can be a credible security partner for Asia.

On each of these counts, there are differences between the Republican and Democratic candidates. It would be instructive if their debate clarified exactly where these differences lie, and where they could lead.

Trump’s attitude to China is but a part of his mythical approach to world affairs. His fixation with US greatness – as if it were a given in global history – might resonate with patriots at home who cannot comprehend the world without America. To Chinese, such mythologies are par for the international course.

Thus, the Beijing political establishment treats Trump’s chest-beating triumphalism with the patronising civility that it reserves for the leaders of countries whose mettle has not been tempered by the unsentimental passage of time. China has thousands of years under its belt.

Moreover, he is a law-and-order tsar, and in that capacity, lauded the “strength” of the Chinese crackdown on the Tiananmen protests of 1989. The Chinese love those who love power, particularly when they are businessmen as well, as Trump is. They can do business with him.

By contrast, Clinton is an insider of the American establishment. Her insistence on the observance of human rights in China during her tenure as secretary of state rankled those occupying the corridors of power in Beijing.

Even more than that, she played a central role in the American “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific region that was meant to resist China’s unquestioned ascendancy. Unlike Trump, she knows the point beyond which Chinese cannot be pushed: this also means that she knows how far they can be pushed. Her ability to move from rhetoric to action could slow the expansion of China’s global agenda.

A key issue in this regard would be the South China Sea. Both candidates have hawkish positions on it, but how far they would go to employ American power to constrain China’s maritime ambitions remains to be seen.

China will be looking carefully at how these two Americans reiterate their positions in Monday’s debate. It is a platitude that Washington and Beijing need each other. How they intend to stay together is what matters. Other Asian countries will be scanning US presidential intentions carefully to see how they will fare in the next phase of Sino-American relations.

Unfortunately, the prognosis is not good for trade-dependent Asia when it comes to either of the two contestants. Trump is outright hostile to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a gold-standard trade pact that involves 12 countries, a substantial number of them Asian: the US, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru. The agreement, which has been signed by Washington but not ratified by Congress, could fall prey to the clearly protectionist slant in Trump’s strategy. This is seen in his criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a threat to withdraw the US from the World Trade Organisation, and his proposal for punitive tariffs on imports from countries such as China.

Clinton, who warned that Trump’s plan to scrap trade deals could start trade wars, wants to renegotiate the TPP. That sits uneasily with countries such as Japan, which have invested much political energy in an agreement that could revolutionise global trade.

Earlier this month, the Peterson Institute for International Economics minced no words in remarking: “Make no mistake,the proposed trade policies of both Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump … would deeply harm the American economy.” It added that backing out of the TPP would “weaken our alliances in Asia, and embolden our rivals, thus eroding American national security”.

It is a platitude that Washington and Beijing need each other. How they intend to stay together is what matters

Nevertheless, Clinton still remains a status quo American leader compared to Trump, whose economic radicalism is of a piece with his controversial calls to keep Muslims out of the country and make Mexico pay for a wall on its borders with the US. The hope is that the sobering exigencies of political office will temper her reservations about the TPP. Her challenger could be less easy to constrain, particularly if he wins the election handsomely.

On security, Trump’s belligerent view of Muslims colours his approach to terrorism. Clinton is balanced, making a clear distinction between Islam as a global religion and extremist Muslims who are a global scourge. Most Asians would prefer a more assertive American stance against the Islamic State, which is spreading its tentacles in Southeast Asia. President Barack Obama has acted with insufficient strategic alacrity against the entity.

However, Trump’s one-dimensional view of Islam is unlikely to appeal even to countries with restive Muslim minorities, such as China, India, the Philippines and Thailand. Unless he comes up with credible policies, he would find Muslim-majority countries shutting their doors on him.

To the extent that these issues feature in the debate, it will set the tone for Asian expectations of the new American presidency.

About the Author

Derwin Pereira heads Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consultancy. He is also a member of Harvard University’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs.

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