TOKYO — Domestic politics could torpedo half a decade of diplomatic, military and trade engagement in the Pacific with both presidential candidates pushing policies opposed by America’s friends and allies.
Pledges by Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump to ditch the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, free-trade deal with 11 other Pacific Rim nations are a top concern for many in the region.
While there is a signed agreement, it has not been ratified. TPP can take effect only if Congress approves it.
Economists believe international trade increases competition, lowers the cost of goods and services for consumers and increases exporters’ access to larger markets. Critics argue that U.S. workers lose out to foreign workers willing to work for less and that American companies face unfair competition from abroad.
The TPP — involving the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam — is a central plank of Washington’s “Pacific pivot,” which reflects President Barack Obama’s administration view of the region as its highest long-term priority.
The pivot, in the works since 2011, has seen six out of every 10 Navy ships sent to the region and diplomats engaging more with Pacific friends and allies as they grapple with a stronger and more aggressive China.
The pivot’s economic component is more important than military, political and diplomatic efforts, Adm. Harry Harris, chief of U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February.
“The most visible piece is the military piece because you can see an aircraft carrier or a joint strike fighter or a Stryker vehicle and all that,” he said. “But the most important part of the rebalance to America is really the economic component.”
In April, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called the TPP “as important to me as another aircraft carrier.”
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong summed up the feelings of many Asian leaders about Clinton and Trump’s TPP opposition.
“It hurts your relationship with Japan, your security agreements with Japan,” he said during a state visit to Washington last month. “And the Japanese, living in an uncertain world, depending on an American nuclear umbrella, will have to say: On trade, the Americans could not follow through; if it’s life and death, whom do I have to depend upon?”
Asian leaders see the trade agreement, not Navy patrols in the South China Sea, as the key sign of American commitment to the region, said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii.
Trump told the Detroit Economic Club this month that the deal would be the next “betrayal” from Clinton, since she supported TPP as secretary of state.
“A vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for TPP,” he said, suggesting Clinton would revert back to supporting the agreement.
In 2012, Clinton described the deal as “the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade.”
The agreement, if ratified, would cover 40 percent of the world’s total trade and build in strong protections for workers and the environment, she said at the time.
That message contrasted with that of her rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who wrote in a June 28 New York Times column:
“The global economy is not working for the majority of people in our country and the world. This is an economic model developed by the economic elite to benefit the economic elite. … Americans should not have to compete against workers in low-wage countries who earn pennies an hour. We must defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
Facing a strong challenge from Sanders and his left-wing supporters, Clinton has done her own Pacific pivot and now claims she never supported the agreement.
“I waited until it had actually been negotiated because I did want to give the benefit of the doubt to the (Obama) administration,” she said during a Feb. 4 Democratic primary debate. “Once I saw what the outcome was, I opposed it.”
Glosserman said the change in position is partly because Congress probably won’t ratify TPP before the election.
“The problem is that in the election season, these larger strategic calculations are overwhelmed by economic and political calculations,” he said.
Trump has spoken out against China, which he accuses of currency manipulation and dumping cheap products that hurt American industry. He’s also suggested that U.S. allies, such as Japan, that are threatened by China should contribute more to the cost of U.S. forces in the Pacific.
Trump said this month that, while the U.S. is obligated by a security treaty to defend Japan, there is no reciprocal requirement for the Japanese to come to America’s aid in war. The Japanese would “sit home and watch Sony television” if the U.S. was attacked, he said.
It “could be necessary” for the U.S. to walk away from the treaty, or at least threaten to do so, he said.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Trump’s remarks, but a ministry spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy, said it is closely following the U.S. presidential election.
“Whoever becomes the next president of the United States, the Japan-U.S. alliance is the core of Japan’s diplomacy and we will closely cooperate with the United States for the sake of the peace and prosperity of Asia-Pacific and the world,” she said.
The U.S. foreign policy establishment has been harshly critical of Trump’s views.
Fifty prominent Republican foreign policy and national security experts many of whom are veterans of George W. Bush’s administration have denounced Trump’s candidacy and pledged not to vote for him.
“This is a guy who believes in alpha male domination,” Glosserman said of Trump. “He respects people who get things done, but it’s always about who wins. He has no sense of history or analysis of the issues. What he says today might not have anything to do with what he says tomorrow.”
There’s far less criticism of Clinton, though some say she is also likely to demand more of America’s Pacific allies.
Clinton’s administration might want more support from the South Korean government for U.S. forces on the peninsula, said Kim Hyun-wook, an American studies professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
The two nations split the bill for U.S. troops stationed there almost 50-50; however, budget deficits mean America is looking for ways to trim military spending, he said.
“Trump is looking at international politics based on a business mindset,” he said. “He wants to get as much as possible from allies for providing for their defense, but Clinton will also want Korea to pay more.”
The U.S. economy is recovering, and America has changed its national security policy, Kim said.
“It is coming back to Asia more actively than before, but there is still a huge government budget deficit,” he said. “The U.S. needs more support from allies. It can’t do everything without allies’ support.”
Clinton will likely continue the Obama administration’s efforts to persuade South Korea to expand its involvement in regional issues, though the South Koreans would rather limit the focus of their alliance to dealing with North Korea, he said. They hesitated in agreeing to accept a THAAD missile-defense system out of concern over miffing China.
“Trump appears not to be interested in global leadership or hegemony but only factors in profits for the U.S.,” he said.
There is concern that Trump could have the same attitude toward Australia, which spends less than 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, said Bates Gill, a professor of Asian-Pacific strategic studies at Australian National University in Canberra.
Australians are also worried about Clinton’s about-face on the TPP.
“The region wants America to be economically engaged, but it is not just an economic issue,” he said. “It’s a signal of American commitment and engagement at the strategic level, which is going to fall short if TTP can’t pass.”
Trump’s statements have set off alarms across the region because they call into question the basis for an American presence and its alliances with South Korea, Japan and Australia, said David Capie, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in New Zealand.
“The New Zealand government has shown strong support for the rebalance and has said clearly how important the American presence in the region is for peace and stability,” he said.
New Zealand, which spends about 1 percent of its GDP on defense, has only recently begun re-establishing military ties with the U.S. after three decades of isolation over its anti-nuclear policy.
Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.