Photo finish

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2000, 12:00am

American voters will go to the polls today in the closest, and strangest, presidential election for 40 years, one whose outcome - like a good horse race - remains just too close to call. Yet the results, whatever they may be, will have a major impact on Asia and the rest of the world for at least the next four years and probably longer.

By normal standards, Vice-President Al Gore should be home free. The longest economic boom in US history, plus the fact that the country faces no international crisis, should let the incumbent party keep the White House easily, especially as the Republican opponent started the long campaign with several liabilities. But Texas Governor George W Bush has gained in stature while Mr Gore has not roused enthusiasm, making the race about as close to a dead heat as possible. Last-minute choices by the undecided could tip the balance, especially if many of them choose Green candidate Ralph Nader over Mr Gore, the more liberal of the main contenders. That could let Mr Bush follow his father into the Oval Office.

The main issues are purely domestic and highly confusing, with foreign policy getting little mention. These concern the social security (pension) system, health policy and education, plus cuts and changes to taxes. Each main party has complex plans for repairing, rescuing or otherwise improving troubled social programmes for the benefit of all. But it is doubtful whether most voters understand the differences between them clearly, and may simply choose the side whose plans seems less risky.

Underlying this, however, is the future of the American economy, and that has global implications. Each candidate claims he will be best for continued expansion, but many leading economists give both of them mediocre marks at best. They are particularly worried by Mr Bush's promise of huge tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy, which could spur inflation and perhaps bring higher interest rates. They welcome Mr Gore's plan to use budget surpluses to bring down the national debt faster, but remain unimpressed with his related plans for using tax rewards and punishments to meet social goals.

But a strong US economy is essential for Americans and everyone else. Asian nations, in particular, rely on a hungry US market to absorb their goods and keep their own growth rates high; they have no reliable alternative. Thus they want the US to follow free trade policies which could make the flow of commerce even stronger. Mr Bush would probably do just that, but there are doubts about whether Mr Gore would try hard enough to override objections of his trade union supporters, who tend towards protectionism.

The only foreign policy issue which got much mention concerned the candidates' willingness to use American forces for peacekeeping or peacemaking reasons. Mr Bush said he would do less of it, but the practical differences between them were not entirely clear. Mr Bush sounded slightly more isolationist in theory, but in fact both men are internationalists at heart and no new basic foreign policy direction seems likely.

China policy did not even come up as a campaign topic, but the two men (or at least their advisers) have some differences of attitude. The Bush camp sometimes talks of China as a 'strategic competitor' rather than a 'strategic partner', a term President Bill Clinton used briefly but abandoned. The Bush team wants to strengthen relations with Japan more than China, and is ready to provide Japan, South Korea and perhaps Taiwan with anti-missile technology over Beijing's objections. It also appears more willing to provide Taiwan with other modern weapons.

On the other hand, a Bush administration would push for more trade and investment, and worry less about human rights issues - both pleasing to Chinese leaders. They might find Mr Gore less amenable on those topics, yet he would almost certainly be more cautious on Taiwan. It is worth noting that his likely secretary of state, Richard Holbrooke, has long diplomatic and private sector experience with Asia and China, while Mr Bush's choice - retired General Colin Powell - got most of his Asian experience with the US army in Vietnam.

In brief, it's a muddle. The election outcome is impossible to forecast with certainty, and the policy differences important to this region are incremental and tentative. The final results will matter enormously, but precisely how is beyond almost everyone's powers of prediction.