Rhetoric on the U.S. presidential campaign trail has raised alarms in the Asia-Pacific region and cast doubt about America’s future in an area seen as critical to the nation’s future prosperity and security.
The caustic, tawdry and personal nature of the election has also left many nations in the region questioning the ability of the United States to follow through on promises to deeply engage the Asia-Pacific.
"It has really undermined the faith and the convictions that many regional actors have about the viability of American commitments [and] the stability of our own democracy,” said Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies.
Both former president George W. Bush and President Barack Obama worked to open diplomatic, security and economic channels in a bid to cement America as a leader in the Asia-Pacific, and experts say continuing U.S. leadership will help counter China’s growing power and influence.
US must 'tap into' Asia-Pacific
At a time when other regions like the Middle East are commanding vast amounts of U.S. attention and resources, America has sought to tap into the dynamic economic potential of the Asia-Pacific countries and establish order, to mitigate current and emerging security threats.
North Korea has ramped up nuclear and missile tests in the Korean Peninsula, tensions have mounted over China’s territorial claims and aggressive actions in the South China Sea, and the new president of longtime ally the Philippines has vowed to “break up with America” and turn to China and Russia.
However, statements by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have eroded hopes for a greater U.S. role in the region.
There is “fear and loathing” in the Asia Pacific about a potential Trump presidency, said Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. This feeling, Manning added, comes even though there is “not enough coherence to Trump’s comments” to discern his foreign policy.
Clinton, Trump both oppose TPP
While Clinton is expected to continue the Obama administration’s strategic re-balance, she has been emphatic in her rejection of its economic cornerstone - the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Without an economic commitment in the region like TPP, U.S. credibility is lost, experts say.
Trade has been a key issue in the presidential campaign, with many Americans in both parties blaming such deals for lost jobs.
Trump has vehemently assailed the trade pact as a job-killing agreement.
During an economic address two months ago in Warren, Michigan, Clinton said of TPP: “I oppose it now. I’ll oppose it after the election and I’ll oppose it as president.” She had previously expressed support for the trade partnership.
The TPP, signed by 12 Pacific-rim nations, must be ratified by Congress, but it faces tough opposition by lawmakers from both major parties.
Clinton seeks 'flexibility'
“I think in several of her more recent statements, [Clinton] seems to be trying to create a bit more space, a bit more flexibility,” Pollack of the Brookings Institution noted.
An adviser on Asian issues who worked with Clinton at the State Department gave a similarly nuanced description of her position during a discussion at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.
"She cannot accept the trade agreement, TPP, as it's currently being negotiated,” said Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under Clinton. “At the same time, she also recognizes that some form of commercial engagement will be necessary going forward.”
On the security front, Trump has alarmed allies by suggesting he might walk away from a treaty obligation to protect them unless they contribute more to NATO.
Trump cynical about alliances
During an August rally in Des Moines, Iowa, he expressed frustration about Japan, one of America’s closest allies. He told supporters Japan cannot help if the U.S. is attacked because its constitution bars overseas military action.
“If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do nothing," Trump said. "They can stay at home, watching Sony television, right?”
“He fundamentally doesn’t seem to understand alliances,” Manning suggested. Alluding to a popular American television drama about organized crime, he said of Trump, “He has a kind of Sopranos view of the world: they have to pay us protection money.”
The U.S. depends on its Asia-Pacific allies to maintain a security presence to guard against potential threats from nations such as North Korea and China. Japan pays $1.6 billion a year in host-nation support for U.S. military operations in Japan, and South Korea pays almost $1 billion for the same reason.
Trump “has not displayed any understanding of the whole post Cold War, rules-based order that U.S. leadership has been essential in enforcing,” Manning contends. “Even though he sounds like he is trying to be tough, [his position] is essentially an abdication of American leadership.”
Responsibilities to American workers
Trump adviser Peter Hoekstra, a former U.S. congressman, says his candidate recognizes the U.S. must invest in its role as a global leader, but “there are responsibilities to American taxpayers and American workers.”
"It's time to go back and start from ground zero and do a full assessment of what our strategy needs to be to confront the challenges that are out there,” Hoekstra said during the discussion at the Korea Economic Institute. “It doesn't mean to ... challenge the relationships or the friendships that we have in Asia."
On dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat, the Trump adviser said all options are open, and called for a reassessment of U.S. policy on North Korea.
Both Clinton's adviser Kurt Campbell and Trump's Hoekstra predicted continuing tensions between the U.S. and China.
Whoever is the next president, Pollack said, U.S. engagement should move forward in the Asia-Pacific region, given its economic, security and diplomatic importance around the world.
“It’s inconceivable to me," the Brookings Institution analyst said, "that any American president will, in fact, try to detach the United States from the region.”