The American Presidential Elections and Asia

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As I am penning this piece, the presidential nominees of the quadrennial ‘mother of all elections’, the American presidential elections, would be Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, following the raucous declarations at the respective conventions. The campaign season and the subsequent primary caucuses have grabbed the eyeballs of the entire globe owing to its extravagance numbers and the startling uniqueness of the 2016 race. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump has effectively polarised the American electorate, global policy and decision makers alike. He has attracted the ire and concerns of several heads. The entire race has evinced responses of moroseness and a sense of shock.

The question that remains to be asked is: How would the next American president impact India and Asia in general? The American president, or POTUS, is undeniably the position of power with every policy measure undertaken, and a stage of reckoning in world politicks. As President Obama, recently put it on the side-lines of the Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington D.C., “the world pays keen attention to what the American president has to say and looks to America for clarity and sobriety in affairs and matters of significant global importance”. The rhetoric witnessed in several debates held by both the Republicans (RNC) and Democrats (DNC)portend a discomforting path ahead. Although it is highly unlikely for the future president, especially for Donald Trump to translate rhetoric into action owing to the outlandish nature of his proposals, yet there may be a need to showcase a certain amount of consistency to the American people.

President Obama had made Asia a centrepiece of his foreign policy strategy. It will remain a large part of his foreign policy legacy. His ‘Pivot to Asia’ doctrine epitomises the White House’s understanding, since the start of the millennium, that the 21st century may in fact belong to Asia, albeit grudgingly. Obama’s initiation is merely an intensification of the White House policy, in particular towards India beginning with the Clinton administration.  It is important to understand that “Asia” is meant to be understood as South East Asia and the Far East in particular. The US State Department categorises these countries, stretching from Thailand and Indonesia to the Pacific islands as the East Asia and Pacific Affairs desk. It draws on the need for the US to be a partner and a relevant player in the region. The need for balancing China’s countervailing influence in the region, and possible cooperation in certain areas such as climate change, forms a major consideration under the strategy. The issue of China’s poor human rights record, aggressive posturing in the South China Sea and the devaluation of the Yuan remain irritants in the US-China relationship.

Hillary Clinton is an individual generally understood to be hawkish on foreign policy in Washington circles, even to a certain extent greater than President Obama. A possible Hillary Clinton presidency would see a continuation of Obama’s policies in the South East Asia region. North Korea remains a key issue in the region and Hillary’s position has been the imposition of additional sanctions through the United Nations. She persists that the solution remains to put pressure on the rogue state through sanctions and calling on China to pressurise Pyeongyang to bring about the nuclear disarmament of the Korean peninsula. Her tenure as the Secretary of State saw the breakdown of multi-party talks and the imposition of sanctions. These sanctions imposed by the Obama administration has seen little or no effect, as was witnessed by the testing of long range rockets and the testing of a likely fission bomb early this year.

The prerogative of a Clinton administration would be to ensure that Pyeongyang would abide by the six-party talks, which had taken place in 2005. The joint statement of the talk emphasised on the phased denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. This attempt would be catalysed by the imposition of additional sanctions and the continuation of the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. The US military presence in Asia helps to bring about a strategic balance in the region. The U.S. 7th fleet in the region, being the largest of the forward deployed fleets is central to the U.S.’ defence strategy for the region. The Pivot to Asia has also seen increased cooperation among states stretching from Thailand and Philippines to Japan.

Trump’s policy towards Asia is more belligerent in nature. He has called for the nuclear arming of both Japan and North Korea, which has been rejected by the Obama administration as naïve, dangerous and contrary to US policy in the region. He has also asserted, that he would forcefully compel China to pressurise the DPRK, through the imposition of high tariffs for Chinese goods. This in part is also his trade policy vis-à-vis the Chinese. He has also been erratic in his foreign policy views, even claiming that he would pull the U.S. military presence in South Korea and Japan, and initiate talks with Kim Jong-un. Trump, unlike Clinton, has lacked specificity in his foreign policy pronouncements. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former director of the defence intelligence command, a covert US military intelligence department set up in the wake of the Cold war, is a foreign policy advisor for the Trump campaign, and is well known for his criticism to the Obama administration. He has called for increased cooperation with the Russians in Syria and has stated that the need of the hour is to establish communication with the ‘other side’, rather than direct confrontation or isolation.

Hillary Clinton had supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while she served in the Obama administration, but has backtracked during her campaign calling for increased scrutiny of the trade deal claiming it had the potential of displacing several American jobs. She had earlier claimed that the trade agreement is central to ‘Pivot to Asia’. This is surprising as she has always been a keen supporter of liberalising trade globally, significantly supporting her husband, Bill Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Her stance can be seen as a campaign ploy due to the increasing anti-trade and globalisation rhetoric in the United States.

Donald Trump has been poignantly against free trade agreements, stating that it was the primary reason for the loss of thousands of American jobs. Policy wonks and analysts have said, that his pronouncements on trade have the possibility of sparking a trade war. He has emphasised on the need for addressing US intellectual property concerns in a swift manner. This has been a major irritant in US-India relations, as India’s protectionist posturing of its domestic pharmaceutical market has caused the ire of major Western drug makers. It is yet to be seen, whether his statements are remain empty rhetoric.

The eventual President-elect in November will have to look at Asia with greater focus and emphasis than previous American presidencies. The impact, whether positive or negative that the American president would have on the region is yet to be fully gauged. For Asia, wishful thinking and empty optimism would no longer do and a realistic and pragmatic touch is a necessary requirement to meet American interests in the region and to bring about stability and security in the region.

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Akhil Koshy is a law graduate from Christ University, Bangalore and is presently working at the Oval Observer Foundation in Delhi. He is an eager consumer of foreign affairs and geopolitical developments.