Asia and the American election

16.06.08 Publication:

Now that the Democrats have at last chosen their presidential candidate, the real guessing game can begin: what might the choice between Barack Obama and John McCain mean for Japan? Or for Asia in general?

                A lot of column inches will be devoted to these questions in the coming months. Many answers will be offered. But the right answer will be that there is unlikely to be any proper answer to these questions until a new president has actually been inaugurated. And that lack of real answers will be good news for Asia. Surprisingly, it will be better to be ignored during the campaign than to be a heated subject of debate.

                Given the conventional wisdom that this is Asia’s century, that power is shifting to Asia, that, as in Fareed Zakaria’s book title, this is a “Post-American World”, you might imagine that the choice would matter a lot, for Asia must surely play some sort of prominent part in the campaign.  You might even hope that it will play such a prominent part.

                You might imagine that, but you would surely be wrong. So far, there has been little sign of any real policy schism between the candidates over Asia nor any debate about it. Perhaps that is because Asia is so important that policy towards it is bipartisan? Well, not exactly. Mostly, it is because in an American election the world is decidedly not post-American. The argument has been firmly focused either on American domestic issues or on American security issues. Asia has hardly come up, under either heading.

                The one topic on which Asia has featured has, of course, been that old favourite, trade.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton exchanged blows over who would be the toughest defender of America’s trading interests and of American jobs. China was naturally one of the targets for such posturing, given that country’s vast trade surplus and reputation as provider of ultra-cheap goods. Older Japanese probably look back with nostalgia at the times in the 1980s, 70s and 60s when Japan played the same sort of role in American election campaigns.

                This time, however, there has been a crucial difference. Although the candidates have taken the occasional swipe at China, the brunt of their criticism has actually been directed at America’s neighbours and partners in the North American Free-Trade Agreement, Mexico and Canada. While some enthusiastic anti-globalisers have jumped upon this as a big setback for globalization, as some sort of sign that the course of history has changed, the truth is much more prosaic. It is that Democratic candidates always have to appeal to their trade union base during the primary campaign in order to win the nomination and they do so by making populist, protectionist speeches. But in the general election in November, they have to desert their base and fight for the centre ground, for that is where national elections are won and lost.

                What this means is that, although there will be plenty of China-bashing among Congressional candidates in industrial districts in November, the presidential candidates are pretty unlikely to fight hard over protectionism and trade. John McCain is a known free trader and will find it impossible to move away from that position without losing credibility. So Barack Obama will have to be only slightly closer to the anti-trade side in order to differentiate himself from McCain and to appeal to America’s remaining factory workers. There is little reason to expect the trade argument to become any fiercer than during the primaries and much reason to expect it to become more reasonable and centrist.

                There is, however, another possible reason why there has been so little China-bashing during the campaign. It is that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton really wanted to attack China very much, for both may have realized the danger of making too many protectionist commitments during the campaign which then, as president, would come back to haunt them. The rules of the World Trade Organisation make it harder now for America to introduce severe trade sanctions against other countries than it was during the 1980s heyday of Japan-bashing. Moreover, with so many enemies and critics in the world already, thanks to the Iraq war, America hardly needs more foreign opponents right now.

                If America’s unemployment rate continues to rise sharply during the summer and if the country slides deeper into recession, this mood could change. China-bashing could become a more popular sport, at least on Mr Obama’s part. Asians concerned about China’s growing power might even hope that this will happen. But that would be a mistake.

                Fortunately, American policy in Asia is not a policy that is currently having to be driven by sudden events and recurrent crises. It is more a question of long-term planning and positioning. Such planning and positioning would be unlikely to be  improved by arguments made in the heat of an election campaign.

                What Japan and other Asian countries should hope is that the new American president seeks a great deal of continuity with the Asian policies of his predecessor, rather than trying to change everything. Many of George W. Bush’s policies need to be ditched. But Asia is different.

                The new president should, for a start, carry on President Bush’s efforts to build a closer American relationship with India. The civil nuclear-energy pact with India that President Bush signed in 2005 has still not been affirmed by the Indian parliament, thanks to opposition from the country’s communist parties, but the new president will want to find other ways to boost the relationship. India is important to America as a balance in Asia to China’s growing weight.

That balance-of-power approach needs to be handled delicately to avoid it turning into confrontation and “containment”, a Cold War term that is anathema to Beijing. So it is best done softly, in combination with a continued open dialogue with China of the sort that has been successfully promoted by Henry Paulson, the Treasury Secretary, and also during the six-party talks about North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme.

Japan needs an America that takes such a long-term, careful, firm approach, remaining committed to Asia and the US-Japan alliance without turning Asian policy into the shouting contest that is typical of American domestic politics.

It will be better, in short, for both Japan and Asia to be largely ignored during the presidential campaign.