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What the US pivot to Asia will look like after the election

What the US pivot to Asia will look like after the election

With the US presidential election just under a month away, northeast Asia faces two very different possibilities over the next four years. Hillary Clinton basically promises the status quo regarding the US role in the region. True, she has backpedalled on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, and her hawkish, interventionist instincts suggest more involvement in the Middle East, which implies less attention to Asian security. But she promises no revolution. True to form, she remains a creature of Washington where the commitment to a large US role in the Asia-Pacific is deeply entrenched. She is the author of the Foreign Policy article which launched the pivot to Asia, and in the first presidential debate, on 27 September, she openly stated that she intends to stand by US treaty arrangements with Japan and South Korea.

Donald Trump, of course, is much harder to predict. The Washington Post’s release of an audio tape on Friday with Trump making obscene comments about women, and the furore which followed, suggest a Trump presidency is suddenly much less likely. However, there are still a few weeks to go in this most unpredictable of campaigns. For Asia watchers, Trump's staggering policy ignorance, coupled with his willingness to say anything to get elected, mean it is hard to know what he actually thinks about region (or anything else), while his laziness suggests that he is unlikely to push the bureaucratic revolution necessary to de-link the US from Asia, if that is indeed his goal. He would have to fight a huge Washington bureaucracy to do so; parts of Congress, much of the military, the sprawling think-tank network built up around Asian security (think CSIS, KEIA, and so on). I doubt he has the wherewithal to slog through all that, and given that no one in the serious national security community wants to work in his administration, he is likely to struggle so much that he will just drop it. (My own guess is that Trump's primary use of the presidency will be to change laws to suit his business interests and enrich his family through government contracts, and use the powers of the Justice Department to pursue his enemies, particularly in the media.)

But if we hold all that constant and take Trump at his word, he does indeed suggest a major US re-orientation toward the region. Trump has been an Asia trade-basher for decades, and his flip comments on US alliances and nuclear proliferation suggests little interest in Asian security as well. There is a deep strain of American trade pessimism, going back to the 1970s, that views Asian states as mercantilist trade-cheaters (think Pat Buchanan, Michael Lind, Clyde Prestowitz, Michael Crichton, and so on), which Trump is bringing into the mainstream. Similarly, there is a growing critique, especially on the right, of US post-Cold War internationalism, arguing that the US does far too much globally, wastes lives and treasure on ungrateful foreigners in conflicts that do not concern it, and does not spend enough at home. Trump is normalising this too. If he gets elected and follows through, US retrenchment from the region and a trade war with China will be regional possibilities for the first time since the 1970s and 1990s respectively.[fold]


Manufacturing plays a curiously powerful role in American elections. Some 80%-85% of Americans work in service industries, but manufacturing's health continues to dominate US attitudes toward trade. Hence, both Trump and Clinton reject the would-be economic pillar of the pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, because Asia's comparative advantage lies mostly in manufacturing. Clinton's opposition is most opportunistic as she helped develop the TPP and earlier called it the 'gold standard' of trade deals. Should the TPP fail, China will almost certainly read the pivot as reduced to nothing more than a military effort to contain it. It is revelatory of how much US voters do not care about Asia that this point is never mentioned in the presidential campaign. The TPP's looming failure will go down as the start of Sino-US/Japanese regional cold war.

Clinton is likely aware of this, but Trump almost certainly would not care if he knew. Trump has made trade with Asia and Mexico the centre of his entire foreign policy. He accuses China of stealing millions of US jobs: American workers are being manipulated, cajoled, or plainly ripped off by Asians. If he sticks to comments to date, the TPP is obviously over, while other regional trade negotiations will likely cease, and Asia's existing FTAs with the US – Australia, Korea, and Singapore – may be revoked. It is within a president's capacity to pull out of an FTA without Congressional approval if it is deemed harmful to the country, an argument Trump has and continues to make. Additionally, he has promised a de facto trade war with China by way of increased duties and tariffs on imported goods. This would be catastrophic, and American consumers would see a sudden rise in prices as cheap Asian imports at Walmart evaporate. It is an open question whether US public opinion would tolerate this in order to protect US industry.


Clinton is a proto-typical American hawk. She deeply shares the Washington consensus on US 'liberal hegemony' and power projection, more so than Barack Obama, whom she often pushed toward foreign commitments such as the Afghanistan surge, Libya, and Syria. This is a double-edged sword for America's Asian allies. On the upside, it means the US local presence will persist, with all the assurance, cheap-riding, and deterrent benefits that entails. On the downside, Clinton's instincts to intervene around the world, especially the Middle East, will almost certainly reduce America's ability to act in Asia. America's Middle East ventures since the Gulf War have been vastly more entangling and enervating than anyone ever anticipated. Should Clinton re-deepen America's commitment there, events will almost certainly not cooperate, dragging the US into some new quagmire.

If this is the devil Asian elites know (the American obsession with the Middle East purchased at the expense of focusing on China), then the devil they don't know, and fear, is Trump. Not since Jimmy Carter has a US president entertained regional retrenchment. Trump probably would not go that far, if only because of massive bureaucratic resistance in Washington. But he could well revisit Bill Clinton's 'New Economic Framework,' seeking use security guarantees to force trade rules on US partners. His mercenary attitude to US defence guarantees suggest this bargaining position, and he has continually insisted that US allies, including Japan and Korea, should pay more or start considering nuclear weapons.

Does the pivot interest the average US voter?

Elsewhere I have argued (short version; long version) that Asia does not actually move the American voter very much. Elites strongly support the pivot, but the median voter hardly cares. The US primary and general election debates in both 2012 and 2016 scarcely mentioned Asia. Trump attacks it relentlessly, while Clinton has backed away from her own trade deal, and rarely talks about China or Asian issues in her stump speech.

This is actually not surprisingly. The United States is a Western country, adjacent to Latin America, and deeply religiously tied-up in the Middle East. Americans care far more about Mexican immigration or ISIS than the they do about China, no matter what the statistics say about Asia's geopolitical weight. Culturally, Americans are far more similar to Europeans, Hispanics, and even Abrahamic monotheistic Muslims than the societies of Asia. Unless some enormous, deck-clearing threat emerges from Asia (i.e. China), this huge cultural gap will continue to undercut the pivot and led to Asia-ignoring presidential campaigns like those of 2012 and 2016.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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