US presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders provoke chills – and scorn – in East Asia

Niv Horesh and Yumiko Kaneko say watching the US presidential race from afar, many in the region have been alarmed by the isolationist tendencies of some of its leading candidates

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 April, 2016, 5:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 3:08pm

The 2016 US presidential campaign has so far managed to upset pundits with perceived non-establishment figures Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders having already won several key states. Both candidates are thought to hold a foreign-policy rationale that is radically different from the ones pursued under either George W. Bush or Barack Obama. For the past two decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations have sought to forge free trade agreements worldwide, yet Trump and Sanders have expressed strong criticism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

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The prospect of Trump winning the Republican Party nomination has, in particular, stoked speculation of intensifying US isolationism in the years to come, at a time when Russia and China are ramping up their global leadership aspirations.

While Trump’s tirade against Fox News broadcaster Megyn Kelly and his statements endorsing punishment for women undergoing illegal abortion have roiled home audiences, East Asian audiences were arguably more disturbed by his calls for Japan and Korea to go nuclear, and to contribute more towards defraying the cost of the US military deployment in the region.

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To make matters worse, these remarks came in just when tensions were rising fast over China’s dredging activity in the South China Sea, and as North Korea was preparing to test yet another ballistic missile. The collateral damage to Trump’s campaign may turn out to be very serious, as several long-serving US diplomats have come out to condemn his stance, only days after he called Nato “obsolete”, and four months after he sparked outrage with his calls to ban Muslims from entering the country.

By now, the Republican Party establishment has closed ranks in a bid to foil a Trump nomination. He stands accused of zig-zagging on whether the US was right to invade Afghanistan in 2001, and of wavering when it comes to the need to combat Islamic State in the Middle East.

It is no wonder, then, that South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo dubbed Trump a “top risk for the world”. Nonetheless, a Trump victory was rated less risky than economic slowdown in China, Russia’s actions in Syria and Ukraine, a corporate debt crisis in emerging markets or the spectre of Britain’s exit from the EU.

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In a recent statement, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hinted that Trump’s reluctance to sponsor military alliances was tantamount to “naked nationalism”, adding, “I cannot conceive of any situation within the foreseeable future when the US presence wouldn’t be necessary”. That said, in fairness to Trump, his lukewarm attitude towards Japan is neatly paralleled by his expectation that France and Germany should contribute much more to Nato financially. He has in that sense, equally cast France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea as well as Israel in the mould of “free riders” that enjoy security at the expense of American taxpayers.

Japanese media have suggested that the US election campaign is turning out to be a bizarre one. The best outcome for Japan, both left- and right-leaning newspapers agree, is if Hillary Clinton were elected, as she is widely expected to continue Obama’s “pivot to Asia”.

Disgust at Trump’s “divisive” rhetoric has been expressed in similar terms across the pages of both the liberal Asahi Shimbun and the conservative Sankei Shimbun. While the former deemed Trump a populist unfit to govern a world power, Sankei considered his proposals a grave threat to Japanese security. Trump’s willingness to let Japan and Korea develop nuclear weapons seems to have actually confounded rather than reassured hawks in both countries.

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Notably, reactions to Trump’s campaign have also been negative in China. Last August, Trump mocked Chinese and Japanese businesspeople speaking broken English to get a “deal”, and suggested that President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) deserved a McDonald’s hamburger instead of a formal dinner at the White House. However, the incident was not widely reported in China itself, where Trump used to enjoy popularity among young people as a flamboyant TV celebrity. In previous years, Trump in fact expressed great admiration as a property developer for China’s economic achievements, which he described as stemming from a flair for deregulation and infrastructure. His later slights have also been tempered by the perception in China that Clinton is much more anti-Chinese and the real mastermind behind the “pivot to Asia”.

On the other hand, a Trump presidency would be like manna falling from the sky into the hands of Chinese Communist Party officials responsible for promoting Chinese soft power overseas. The Global Times was quick to highlight how Trump “mischief” rallies resulted in fights. But rather than personalise the issue, it pointed a finger at America’s institutional failing: “Despite candidates’ promises, Americans know elections cannot really change their lives. Then, why not support Trump and vent their spleen?” In other words, Trump has been used to depict how easily Western democracies – despite their faith in the “one man, one vote” ethos – can succumb to racism and populism.

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Media coverage in Chinese, however, was a little more circumspect, not least because it is aimed at domestic audiences. Thus, on March 22, an online editorial in the People’s Daily reminded readers there was no reason to panic as “playing the anti-China card” was a common feature of both Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns.

There is, however, another dimension to Chinese critiques of America that is rarely covered in the Western media. Often, China is cast as a model better suited for the developing world because introducing democracy in a low-income setting can lead to anarchy. Here, many pro-establishment Chinese academics underscore the distinction between delivering on the popular will (minxin) and appeasing public opinion (minyi), a duality which they see as lacking in liberal democracies.

While they encourage the Communist Party to listen carefully and on an ongoing basis to public opinion, by way of formulating quick solutions to frustrating local problems, they argue that political legitimacy can only be secured by inclusively addressing the longer-term and often less audible concerns inherent in the public will.

Niv Horesh is a professor of history and director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham (UK). Yumiko Kaneko is a doctoral candidate at the university’s School of Politics and International Relations