Sutter and Limaye for the East-West Center on Asia Policy in the Election

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It would be great if the election were actually being fought out around coherent policy differences. But understanding position-taking will still matter for how Asia is treated under the new administration and more importantly for how the US is seen in Asia. At the East-West Center, Robert Sutter and Satu R. Limaye have done the service of distilling down policy positions on core issues and also noting Asian response to the spectacle on this side of the Pacific.

As they note, the policy divide initially centered on the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s so-called pivot, and as a result on exactly how the relationship with China would be managed. But that debate was quickly swallowed by the convergence of the two candidates against the TPP and Donald Trump’s unsettling comments about the alliances with Japan and Korea, and nuclear weapons. Interestingly, the stances on these two issues both reflect significant departures from long-standing bipartisan consensus: in the first case, with respect to the strategic benefits of trade; in the second, with respect to the value of a strong military presence in the region, which is ultimately felt not simply in naval power but in the alliances. As Sutter and Limaye conclude, position taking on these issues ultimately serves Chinese interests. To be sure, Trump has said unsettling—although ultimately incredible—things about what he would do on the economic front. But that does not address the larger strategic questions. The administration’s signature economic initiative has—at least for the moment—unraveled, allies are openly questioning US credibility and Beijing is off the hook for actions that have made the region a riskier military and diplomatic theater.

In addition to these issues, Sutter and Limaye outline the debate and regional reaction to the debate on four other questions: the broader China question, North Korea, Taiwan, human rights, and democracy. The report has a neat little appendix table summarizing the candidates’ positions.

On North Korea, I expect a tougher stance from Clinton than has been the case under strategic patience, with the Wendy Sherman speech (linked below) and the recent Council on Foreign Relations report providing some ideas. Few in the region whom Sutter and Limaye consulted on Trump’s proposal for a sit-down with Kim Jong Un thought that it would go anywhere; to the contrary, it appeared to undermine the solidarity needed to fully engage China on the question.

The wider conclusion: once the enormous distraction of the election is over, the new administration will have some significant work to do in the region simply to regain trust.

Election Watch: Witness to Transformation posts on the contest for the presidency:

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