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Uncertainty on security and trade worry allies in Asia as US election approaches

Seven countries in the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership hail from the Asia Pacific. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Uncertainty on security and trade worry allies in Asia as US election approaches

This article is part of The Conversation Global’s ‘The View From …’ series, explaining how governments and citizens in key countries and regions worldwide view the US presidential election. Today, we look at how nations in East Asia see the election and what they expect from the results.

The impending US presidential election is causing some consternation among nations in East Asia that have been traditional allies of the country. Both security and economic interests, in the guise of the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – seven of which hail from the Asia-Pacific – are causing anxiety, particularly because of the kinds of statements made by Republican candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail.

Some middle and small powers, such as Thailand and Malaysia, had already shifted their focus – if not their political support – to China. It remains to be seen if the incoming president will trigger a diplomatic shift for the whole region.

Facing uncertainty

The US has cultivated friendships in Asia since the end of the second world war. As a major international power, it has offered the region public goods, such as security and the shelter of its nuclear umbrella, as well as facilitating market economy and free trade.

Many American allies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, would be happy to see Hillary Clinton become the next American president, in part because she was responsible for the Barack Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy when she was the secretary of state.

The policy saw the US aiming to shift its strategic focus and necessary military capability back to Asia, and strengthen American alliances in the region. American deployment of marine forces in Darwin in northern Australia is one the best examples of the policy in action.

Since China has established an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea (also possible in the South China Sea at some stage), and the reclaimed the reefs in the South China Sea, it’s likely Clinton will stick to the policy.

Donald Trump’s proposed policy towards Asia, on the other hand, is isolationist in that he does not seem to want the United States to provide security for other countries any more, or to enter further free trade agreements.

Perhaps Trump’s calculation reflects the rational businessman he claims to be, focusing on how to minimise costs and maximise profits. He has criticised Japan and South Korea as free riders when it comes to regional security, and has even suggested these two countries obtain nuclear weapons themselves.

Any withdrawal of the US security guarantee would be a nightmare for these and other American allies in the region, just as it would be for the nation’s European allies.

Worried allies

Japan has been doing what it can to ensure its alliance with the US continues. In April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared: “no matter who will be the next president, the Japan-US alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy”.

Abe met with Clinton in September to lobby for continuing US military presence in the region, and implementing the TPP. Hitoshi Tanaka, a former Japanese deputy minister for foreign affairs has criticised Trump’s statements, which Tanaka says can undermine the American role in the region, shake the confidence of its allies and weaken the credibility of its economic leadership.

The uncertainty created by the presidential election also provides cause for concern in Australia. In terms of values and preferences in foreign policy, Australia and the United States have human rights, democracy and free trade in common. But China has become an important trading partner for Australia because of its hunger for natural resources, such as coal, iron ore and natural gas.

If Trump becomes the US president, Australia will face an immediate dilemma – should Canberra strengthen its military capability in case of a possible American retreat or bandwagon with China?

Similar concerns also assail South Korea. Seoul has just finalised a site for implementing the Terminal High Attitude Area Defence (THAAD), which is part of a defence system offered by the United States to intercept missile and nuclear attacks from North Korea. Would it be rolled back if Trump enters the White House?

South Korea is itself now considering whether it is, in fact, better to develop nuclear weapons, in case American foreign policy can no longer be expected to remain stable and predictable.

Taiwan, meanwhile, is in a rather embarrassing situation in relation to the diplomatic competition between China and the United States in that it’s neither a member of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is dominated and administered by China, nor in the TPP.

Its mass media has expressed concerns that if Trump wins, he may disrupt the supportive US policy towards Taiwan.

And then there’s trade

The signed but not yet ratified free trade agreement known as the TPP involves the US, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru. For the deal to take effect, it has to be ratified by February 2018.

A monkey holds a card reading ‘elected’ between cardboard cutouts of Clinton and Trump in Hunan Province, China. Stringer/Reuters

Clinton has said, “I am not in favor of what I have learned” about the TPP and is likely to re-examine its provisions if elected. But Trump has decisively spoken against it for threatening American jobs.

Singapore has been outspoken about the need to get the deal through. In speech at the American Chamber of Commerce and US-ASEAN Business Council in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said ratifying the agreement “will be a clear statement of your commitment to and your confidence in our region.”

Lee reiterated the message again in an interview with Time in late October, saying the United States would lose its “credibility as an ally and as a deterrent” if the next president just lets the TPP go.

Waning influence

American influence in Asia has been weakened with the rise of Chinese economic capabilities. The best evidence for this is the ostensible change in Philippine foreign policy.

President Rodrigo Duterte may have set aside territorial claims in the South China Sea (at least temporarily), in return for a Chinese investment and economic package, but at least Filippino fishers are now back in the Scarborough Shoal.

Duterte’s diplomatic shift from the United States to China can be regarded as a pragmatic calculation. But statements, such as “I am no American puppet…do not make us your dogs” go far beyond concerns about who the next US president will be. Duterte’s emphasis is on nationalism and a sense of rebellion against American colonial rule in the Philippines.

Other middle and small powers within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have adopted a hedging policy for a while. They buffer themselves by being on the side of the United States for security protection, while tending to the side of China for economic benefits.

Most of them – Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia – kept a low profile during the dispute in the South China Sea, even though the latter two have claims there.

Just two weeks ago, the Chinese navy arrived and stayed in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay. This was formerly a military port for the United States during the Vietnam War. And for the Soviet Union then Russia from 1979 to 2002. In late 2013, Russia and Vietnam signed an agreement for repair and maintenance of submarines there.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also went to Beijing recently to discuss various business deals, including a military bid on patrol ships that can fire missiles.

More than any other ASEAN country, Vietnam and Malaysia seem to have made their choice between China and the United States. No matter who is the next American president, given their geographical proximity and increasing economic interdependence with China, they seem to be edging closer to their large neighbour.

Trump has expressed considerable hostility to China, but Clinton isn’t likely to become a great friend to Beijing either. In international relations, great power competition rarely has room for trust or promises, and the American president must try to contain or prevent the rise of China.

While the nature of great power relations between China and the United States seem quite stable, what’s caught attention in China is the “chaotic” nature of US democratic system itself. Trump’s overblown statements about the Chinese currency and terms of trade have also made headlines, although he has turned down the attacks in recent months.

India is a natural ally to the United States because the countries have converging values, norms and interests, such as democracy and regional stability.

Last but not least, we should not skip North Korea. An editorial in DPRK Today regards Trump as a “wise politician” and “far-sighted presidential candidate”. Perhaps Kim Jong-Un is looking for a diplomatic breakthrough, but it is more likely that he doesn’t understand the American presidential election – rhetorical statements from a presidential candidate will not, after all, automatically translate into future policy.

The US presidential election matters most to American allies in Asia in terms of continuous commitment and credibility. But it won’t have much of an impact on the middle and small powers who have increasingly hedged on the side of China for economic gain.