Whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton as the next US president, Asia is in for a security shake-up

Manjit Bhatia says given the geopolitical and economic realities, the US is likely to play a diminished role in the region amid China’s rise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2016, 1:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 3:08pm

As the US presidential election inches towards November’s finale, the lame-duck Barack Obama is already counting down his days. He’ll consider the legacy he will bequeath from his eight years in the White House, plus his presidential memoirs and library, on retiring in January. Yet the thorny work of implementing US policy lies frightfully ahead. In Asia, it’s fraught with jeopardy.

The dogfight between billionaire Republican Donald Trump and the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton is all set to intensify. And Asia’s leaders must be wondering whether they ought to focus more on both contenders. Because, what if Trump becomes the 45th US president: will China usurp the Asian (dis)order by default since Trump plans to return America to isolationism? Or is US power hamstrung, no matter who is the next president?

Whatever becomes of Trump’s triumphalism, Asia should worry

Asia is plagued by problems. For starters, it’s struggling to generate sustainable growth, with economies showing glaring structural weaknesses. Governments are also trying to stave off more zealous geopolitical competition amid China’s rise. Meanwhile, Beijing scarcely looks like it is backing down on territorial sovereignty issues. And it will keep thumbing its nose at the US.

Whatever becomes of Trump’s triumphalism, Asia should worry. His fire and brimstone talk – by a man used to bluster backed by his financial clout – is predictable, but illogical. Republican diehards may yet wise up and stop him dragging America down perilous policy adventures and wrecking America further.

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Trump’s jingoism isn’t any more sensible than the possibility of war with China. Asians knows this, but are happy to be entertained by Trump cranking up his “Make America Great Again” neo-nationalist evangelism.

History shows that drawing a giant into battle, whether its will is restrained, wounded or fatigued, is easy. It’s also dangerous, especially as competition for the Asian order intensifies. China wishes to remake the Asian order in its image. Clinton is resolved to fortify the US post-war regional architecture. The next presidential term should be vexatious. China will, early on, test Trump’s or Clinton’s limits of power.

For all his isolationist bravado, though, Trump will be more aggressive towards regional allies. He has already said they must contribute more towards US military expenditure in Asia. But it doesn’t mean he’ll back off if and when push comes to shove with China.

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Clinton, however, will be more cautious, seeking greater military cooperation from regional allies, including India. The problem is that this will merely reinforce Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) view of the US doctrine of containing China. At the very least, and despite recent military budget cuts, Beijing will beef up its forward defences deeper into the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and farther into the South China Sea, regardless of attempts by the likes of Japan at pacifying China.

Unlike Trump, Clinton’s Asia policy is more or less mapped out. In her essay for Foreign Policy magazine in 2011, she reiterated the Obama line that the US has an “irreplaceable role” as a Pacific power by virtue of its geography. Not that Asia needs to be convinced of this, but countries from South Korea to India will nevertheless be beseeching Washington for a greater commitment of US military assets.

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Clinton won’t do a Trump and threaten withdrawal of US forces from Asia. In fact, she’ll probably boost them via more frequent rotations and joint exercises, even if these send the US budget spiralling into more debt, although Asia will foot more of the bill. And, unlike Trump, Clinton will peddle diplomacy hard and fast before she takes direct action to ensure “America has the capacity to secure and sustain [its] global leadership in this century, as [it] did in the last”.

That’s all well and good but US policy abroad isn’t unaffected by its domestic woes. There’s no question that Russia, the Middle East and Islamic terrorism will test US resolve. So will the US economy and its ability to generate sufficient revenue and therefore disbursement for its ever-increasing military budget. Besides, the powerful US military-industrial complex won’t roll over for an indulgent belly rub in times of national financial strife, while Congress, whose members constantly have theirs eyes on the polls, won’t allow the complex to weaken.

Politics emerges as key determinant of market sentiment

The political, economic and social realities could be abruptly different. The US economy isn’t out of the woods yet following the 2008 fiasco. Obama’s health policy remains dysfunctional and broke. America’s social policy is a mess. Even as the jobs market improves, and world oil prices are well down from their historical highs, inflation isn’t inching up enough to succour businesses, and US Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen won’t scuttle quantitative easing in the foreseeable future. And whatever the dollar does, China still wields some US$1.2 trillion of US Treasury debt.

The situation won’t change anytime soon. Asia should expect even Clinton to waver on, and rethink, the “pivot to Asia”. For, just as there have been strengths, there are today more weaknesses in American exceptionalism. Beijing knows this and will up the geopolitical ante. The time is nigh for Asia – minus China – to carry more of its own military can.

Manjit Bhatia is an Australian research scholar who specialises in the economics and politics of Asia and international political economy. He is also research director of AsiaRisk, an economic and political risk consultancy