What would a Hillary Clinton presidency mean for Asia?

As the race to the White House hots up political offices in Asia are already starting to consider American policy should Hillary Clinton take the keys to the highest office. She is a champion of a tough line on human rights and already considering the implications of trade deals on her reputation but whoever wins the November election will need to think carefully about building relationships in the Asia-Pacific region. 

By Zofia Reych

With the US presidential elections taking place in a matter of months, what are the implications for Asia should America elect its former First Lady, its former Secretary of State, and its first female president?

During her term as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton visited the Asia-Pacific region 61 times. Heading US foreign policy, she oversaw Obama’s strategy of “rebalancing to Asia”. As the First Lady, she made another 19 visits to the region. She’s the most regionally experienced candidate in this year’s US presidential elections.

During Clinton’s term at the Department of State, she signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) on behalf of the United States. She also opened the first US Mission to ASEAN and appointed the first ambassador.

“[TAC] seals our commitment to work in partnership with the nations of ASEAN to advance the interest and values we share,” Clinton said in 2009 after signing the treaty. “South East Asia and ASEAN are critically important to our future,” she added, speaking of her own dedication and also that of President Obama to supporting peace and prosperity in the region.

Interestingly, some pundits suggest that Clinton’s efforts in the region were undervalued within the administration itself and among the public.

Balancing China

Although Beijing also signed the TAC, the cooperation between ASEAN and China has been hindered for years by the ongoing South China Sea dispute. To balance out Chinese influence in the region, the US firmly supports Southeast Asian claims, with recent developments confirming Obama’s stance.

Clinton is likely to continue Obama’s tough policy regarding the issue. For Beijing officials, she is the most feared presidential candidate, possibly inclined to take an approach even firmer than that of the current administration. Indeed, “her record suggests a more assertive U.S. response,” believes Professor Benjamin Reilly from Murdoch University in Australia.

Clinton would also tighten the ties with Vietnam and the Philippines, the two countries most involved with the South China Sea issue, especially after the Hague ruling.

“You can count on me to protect the interest in the South China Sea because it’s important that these disputes be handled in a diplomatic and legal matter, not by force or seizure,” said Clinton in February this year for ABS-CBN News, also reminding of the mutual defense pact signed by the US and the Philippines in 1951.

In Clinton’s vision, American presence around the world is often a necessary prerequisite to peace and prosperity. Moreso than President Obama, she is an advocate for both diplomatic and military interventions. Seeing China as a threat to America’s global position, she would support regional integration in ASEAN, as well as maintaining a strong military presence in both Southeast and East Asia.

As a fervent advocate for human rights, Clinton would likely increase pressure on China, as well as those leaders in the Asia-Pacific region that are dragging their feet.

Trade Relations

During Obama’s first term, Clinton was championing the Asian pivot, and thereby supported the development of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), an extensive free trade deal designed at minimising Chinese influence.

The TTP was signed in February this year. It is yet to be ratified by Congress but Clinton has already changed her stance, possibly having learned from public animosity towards the North American Free Trade Agreement that her husband signed during his first term of office.

Signed during Bill’s presidency in 1994, NAFTA was supported by both Clintons but is now regarded as a major factor in the decline of America’s Rust Belt states. Although Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin traditionally were once Democrat strongholds, now they are much more inclined towards the GOP. And with Donald Trump promising to bring production back to the US, Clinton cannot afford to openly support another trade agreement that could potentially further undermine domestic industries.

Allegedly, the publisher of the latest edition of Hillary Clinton’s biography “Hard Choices” had to remove all sections detailing with her work on the TTP negotiations. A CNN compilation lists 45 past occasions when Clinton supported the deal, but now her advisers speak of adjustments that would be necessary to make it an acceptable and favourable agreement.

As other issues (such as the domestic economy and the war on terrorism) took priority, Obama’s Asian push has somewhat lost its momentum. However, with the East’s growing importance, America’s new leader will have to commit to building sustainable relations in the region. Asia Pacific is also likely to play a strategic role in the rise or unmaking of ISIS, deeming US alliances in the region even more important.

Unfortunately, radical changes of attitude don’t help Hillary Clinton’s image as she is often said to have a “trust problem” with the public. However, when it comes to credibility, Donald Trump’s track record is not exactly better and, for the sake of US-ASEAN relations, we can but hope that it is the Democrat candidate that takes the keys to the White House in November.