What should Asia expect under Hilary Clinton's presidency?
BY mid-afternoon on Wednesday November 9, Asians will be temporarily unified by their collective sigh of relief. Early US election results will be announcing their reprieve from four years of torment under a Trump presidency. Just ahead of election day, the United States’ six major polling models range in their predictions of the likelihood of a Clinton presidency between 85 and 97 percent. FBI director James Comey’s October 28 precedent-breaking announcement that new emails had been discovered rewrote the scripts of both campaigns but subsequent polls suggested that few presidential votes would shift as a result. Short of a zombie invasion or some equivalent deus ex machina, Clinton’s presidency is all but guaranteed.
Her victory will provide two valuable reassurances. First, continuity is likely. As secretary of state, Clinton was a major contributor to President Barack Obama’s Asia policy, including the “rebalance” to Asia. Second, her current Asia policy team is stacked with a deep bench of individuals sharing extensive experience and familiarity with all aspects of East Asia.
This will not be an administration that is fomenting trade or currency wars, reducing alliances to their economic transaction costs or encouraging Japan and South Korea to develop autonomous nuclear programs – as promised by Trump. Obama’s Asia policies have their critics, and expertise by no means guarantees compatibility. But “slow and steady” policies under adult supervision will be far more regionally welcome than the alternative.
Though a Clinton presidency will mean continuity, her past suggests that she is also more prone than Obama to employ military force. As one interviewer observed, she prefers the “nail eating, swamp-crawling” military officers to diplomats wearing uniforms.
This is likely to generate more robust challenges by the United States toward North Korea and a greater willingness to employ the Seventh Fleet as a check on maritime assertiveness. It may also make Clinton reluctant to change plans for the highly controversial Marine Corps base repositioning within Okinawa, despite massive Okinawan opposition to the relocation. And it may influence her handling of complex alliance relations like those with Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines or the generals running Thailand.
Equally significant, however, Clinton devours her briefing books and is adept at combining tactical manoeuvring with attention to her long-term agenda. She will be willing to exchange tit-for-tat on specific provocations while bolstering existing alliances and building on tentative cooperation with China in areas such as climate change, piracy and the Iran nuclear deal.
But any abstract commitment by the Clinton administration to prioritise Asia will confront at least three huge hurdles.
First, instability and warfare in the Middle East will continue to devour disproportionate amounts of policymaking bandwidth. Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran, not to mention Israel-Palestinian relations, will remain gargantuan Middle Eastern sand dunes that impede the footsteps and obscure the vision of any moves toward Asia.
Second, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), key to Obama’s efforts to engage and structure Asia Pacific trade and investment, is dead for the foreseeable future. Mitch McConnell, Republican majority leader of the US Senate, has declared that the Senate will not consider the TPP during the November-January “lame duck” session, continuing his adamant obstruction of every Obama initiative. His refusal also closes an otherwise convenient back door by which Hillary could have benefited from the TPP’s ratification without reversing her campaign trail promises.
Those promises plus the looming political exigencies of the 2018 Congressional elections work against her bringing the TPP forward in her first two years, regardless of the pleadings of the other 11 signatories or the TPP’s potential benefit to United States’ economic engagement with Asia.
This feeds into the third impediment. Even with a big Electoral College win, Clinton will enjoy no honeymoon.
Party and cultural divisions in the United States have taken on tribal exclusivity. Clinton is not likely to see more than a one-to-three-seat Democratic majority in the Senate at most, while to capture a House majority, Democrats must gain 30 seats from at most 35 vulnerable Republican-held seats, an always-tough task made harder by the Comey announcement which has remobilised dispirited Republicans now anxious to ensure a Congressional check on a Clinton presidency.
Clinton’s skills in negotiating across the partisan aisle are justifiably touted as superior to Obama’s, and Asia policies are not inherently partisan triggers. But incentives still remain high for Republicans to sustain a united wall of opposition. Senate elections in 2018 are likely to return a Republican majority while in the House, a fractious Republican caucus and House Speaker Paul Ryan whose long run presidential ambitions will circumscribe any incentive he might have to “sell out” by cooperating with Clinton.
House Republicans are already promising that if they retain even the slimmest majority they will begin an endless cycle of well-publicised investigations of Clinton and even potential impeachment hearings before she unpacks in the White House. And public scepticism about a Clinton victory remains high among Republican voters. An NBC/SurveyMonkey poll released on October 20 found that a full 45pc of Republicans definitely wouldn’t or are unlikely to accept the results of the election if their candidate lost.
Any collective post-election relief Asians might feel is likely to be shortlived in the face of the prioritisation of non-Asian issues on the US agenda, an Asia policy devoid of economic and financial engagement and the clown show that passes for the US Congress. But relief may be in sight: Candidates are already gearing up for the 2020 presidential elections.
– East Asia Forum
US President Barack Obama (left) and then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton wave as they leave Yangon International Airport following a historic visit in November 2012.