10 November 2016: This article of three days ago – the day before the election – plumped for the likelihood of a Clinton victory. Our sentiments regarding US policy towards Asia remain as per below, though clearly the likelihood of them being heeded has diminished. TPP now is dead. Whether a vigorous multilateral approach to security in the South China Sea is pursued is less clear. One of the big problems with trying to analyse Trump at this stage is that it is very unclear how much of the extraordinary campaign rhetoric we should believe.
President-Elect Clinton will of course have many issues to consider ahead of her taking office, and Asia will not necessarily be foremost on the agenda. But Obama’s “pivot to Asia” needs to remain alive and well as a crucial foreign policy theme. Unfortunately, the nativist revival seen in the US political campaign – and that behind Trump’s shockingly large popularity that nearly achieved the presidency for that appalling individual – makes it politically more difficult to do the needful in Asia. But needs are needs and they are basically twofold: trade and security.
First, having cynically disowned the trade agreement that she herself was a central negotiator of, she needs to summon her best Clintonite skills of political duplicity and dissimulation and get a version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade/investment pact ratified. There will clearly have to be a revision process on aspects of the existing draft, in order for this about-turn to be performable. It is such a large treaty on paper that it should be possible to identify certain changes to be made. It is absolutely in the global interest for the international trade and investment regime to reflect liberal values rather than the autocratic, corruption-tolerant ones of Beijing. It is wrong to consider TPP an “anybody but China” club; rather, TPP can provide the lead that other countries including China will one day want to join – to the betterment of the global trading and investment system.
Second, Clinton should employ her hawkish and multilateral instincts in the South China Sea. (This is not the only part of the world where these instincts are needed, the other one being vis-a-vis Putin in Eastern Europe, via continued galvanisation of NATO.) In recent days and weeks we have seen worrying developments, including (a) mad dog Duterte cosying up to China; (b) a Chinese/Malaysian deal for naval cooperation; (c) Cambodia now wholly lost to being a pure puppet state of China; (d) advanced Russian fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles being sold to China; and (e) the staunchly pro-American Park government in South Korea facing its downfall on account of a Rasputin-esque female witch doctor. There is no point in trying to deny or prevent the rise of China as a world superpower – that’s a given. The point, as with the TPP discussion above, is to shape the rules of engagement to fair, long-established and internationally-agreed ones. Specifically this applies to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Obama made a start with such naval exercises, but this now needs further extension. There need to be sailings within the 12-mile zone of the shoals that China has militarised, and the goal for Clinton’s administration should be that these be undertaken by multinational convoys including the US, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, and any other countries that want to take part. The UN court this past summer ruled definitively that Beijing’s nine-dash map of that sea has no validity; it is now incumbent on concerned nations to enforce the judgement. Much better to stand down thuggish behaviour early than to appease and thereby encourage it.