The First Debate: Asia Takes a Ride on the Wild Side

October 3, 2016 7:00 AM

For some reason, Asia is getting more attention in the national political campaign than we had anticipated. The attention has been driven in part by North Korea, in part by the animus directed at the TPP by both parties, and by ongoing comments by Mr. Trump about burden-sharing in the alliances, and those with Japan and Korea in particular. Here is our quick take on some of the claims, and the claims about the claims, in the first debate. Although Mr. Trump had the more obvious stumbles, Secretary Clinton sounded—well, Clintonesque—in seeking to explain her stance on the TPP.  

Hillary Clinton was the first to pivot to Asia in the debate and it came in the wake of an extended defense of the Iranian nuclear deal. In defending the agreement, Clinton focused on the imposition of collective sanctions as well as negotiating limits on Iran’s capabilities: 

“CLINTON: He has said repeatedly that he didn't care if other nations got nuclear weapons, Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia. It has been the policy of the United States, Democrats and Republicans, to do everything we could to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He even said, well, you know, if there were nuclear war in East Asia, well, you know, that's fine...

TRUMP: Wrong.

CLINTON: ... have a good time, folks.”

In fact, Mr. Trump has made comments  to the effect that our Northeast Asian allies might need to acquire nuclear weapons, and has been taken to task on the issue (see Gena Gerzhoy and Nick Miller at the Monkey Cage). But he has clearly sought to shift the conversation from those claims toward his persistent campaign theme that the allies are not paying enough, and that is what he did last Monday night. Yet he did not walk away completely, closing by saying that “all I said was, they may have to defend themselves or they have to help us out.” In dizzying cynicism, Trump foreign policy advisor Joseph Schmitz was apparently interviewed by Mainichi (according to Chris Nelson), telling a Japanese audience that Trump was just bargaining for more concessions and he "intends to strengthen the mutual defense accords by making them better for both parties".

By chance, the timing of this exchange came just as Lester Holt was turning to a question on the nuclear issue and particularly President Obama’s consideration of announcing a no-first use policy. In fairness, Trump might have been tripped up by the complicated way the question was framed, talking first about the consideration of moving to no first use and then asking if Trump supported the current policy, which does not renounce a first-use option in extremis.

Trump then went on to make comments on North Korea that had the blogosphere buzzing, namely reiterating his claim (with which we actually sympathize) that China has more leverage than it says it does. But he took it much further: “China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.” Again, it is hard to know if this is just a slip of the tongue or campaign fatigue or just shorthand for “going in and getting the job done.” But to my knowledge it is the first time that a public figure has argued openly that China should “go into” North Korea to solve the nuclear issue. Moreover, he argued that the North Korean and Iranian issues are linked, and suggested that—somehow—the two nuclear programs should have been handled in tandem: 

“TRUMP: Iran is one of their biggest trading partners. Iran has power over North Korea.

And when they made that horrible deal with Iran, they should have included the fact that they do something with respect to North Korea.”

Good luck with that. The exchange provided an opportunity for one of Hillary Clinton’s more effective bits of the evening. Looking straight into the camera:

“CLINTON: Well, let me—let me start by saying, words matter. Words matter when you run for president. And they really matter when you are president. And I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them.

It is essential that America's word be good. And so I know that this campaign has caused some questioning and worries on the part of many leaders across the globe. I've talked with a number of them. But I want to—on behalf of myself, and I think on behalf of a majority of the American people, say that, you know, our word is good.”

Although Mr. Trump’s comments about the alliances might be seen as a bargaining ploy, they are certainly not seen that way in Asia, Mr. Schmitz notwithstanding; they naturally raise long-standing concerns about abandonment, and particularly in the face of the more unsettling foreign policy currently being pursued by Beijing.  

Trump’s advisors have tried to back away from his “who the hell cares about a trade war” comments as well, by claiming that the threats to impose punitive tariffs on China and Mexico and abrogate NAFTA and KORUS are also only bargaining ploys. But such threats are only meaningful if credible, and as Noland, Robinson, and Moran have shown, carrying out these threats could wreak havoc on the US economy.  

Finally, we close with some parsing of the discussion of TPP. My colleague Marc Noland reminded me that while Secretary Clinton committed a misdemeanor on trade policy, Mr. Trump is a felon. Nonetheless, he did score points on how trade issues have been handled by the Clinton campaign: 

“TRUMP. …And now you want to approve Trans­Pacific Partnership. You were totally in favor of it. Then you heard what I was saying, how bad it is, and you said, I can't win that debate. But you know that if you did win, you would approve that, and that will be almost as bad as NAFTA. Nothing will ever top NAFTA.

CLINTON: Well, that is just not accurate. I was against it once it was finally negotiated and the terms were laid out. I wrote about that in...

TRUMP: You called it the gold standard. You called it the gold standard of trade deals. You said it's the finest deal you've ever seen.

CLINTON: No.

TRUMP: And then you heard what I said about it, and all of a sudden you were against it.

CLINTON: Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are—I did say I hoped it would be a good deal, but when it was negotiated...

TRUMP: Not.

CLINTON: ... which I was not responsible for, I concluded it wasn't. I wrote about that in my book...”

I can only characterize this exchange as Clintonesque, the kind of fine parsing of the facts that is actually grossly misleading. Of course it is fair that you can’t support a trade agreement that hadn’t been finalized, and Clintons opposition to the TPP was not fully aired until the agreement was negotiated. But it is more than a little unseemly to walk away from a deal that was the signature economic component of the pivot, and one reflective of the “pillars” that she herself identified as crucial to the US presence in the region, namely, the importance of multilateral agreements and the significance of maintaining an engaged economic presence; Politifact details her prior commitment to the deal and gets it broadly right. 

Moreover, she has not detailed what she thinks is wrong with the agreement precisely, and as a result it is hard to see why Mr. Trump is not correct. The Obama administration made the strategic mistake of delaying consideration of the TPP to an election year. Once that was done, the political squeeze from Sanders and Trump was clearly responsible for her walking away; how else to explain it? I am scratching my head about why such an abnegation of American leadership—failing to support a trade agreement which your own administration advanced and negotiated—doesn’t raise similar credibility problems to those caused by Mr. Trump’s comments about our alliances.

The particularly stark way in which Secretary Clinton articulated her opposition to the agreement in her Warren, Michigan economic speech is going to make a reversal either particularly embarrassing or impossible: “I oppose it now, I'll oppose it after the election, and I'll oppose it as president.” Some think there may still be a narrow path to lame duck passage, and Secretary Kerry did damage control with a long speech at the Wilson Center focused on the strategic rationale for the TPP (“The inescapable bottom line is that, with TPP, we will be far better positioned to enhance our national security and to protect our interests in the globe's most dynamic region than we will be without this agreement.”) Senator Orrin Hatch is speaking as if the solution to a few outstanding problems, like biologics, could energize a vote. But with Democrats missing in action, where are the votes going to come from? Sandy Levin offered a reasoned critique that reflects where thoughtful Democrats are, but concludes forcefully that the agreement should not come to a vote in the lame duck session.

What we would like to see: a more aggressive focus on the benefits of exports as well as imports to the US economy, an admission that trade does in fact force labor market adjustments and a more aggressive policy for dealing with that trade displacement. But we are the globalists, and that is apparently an epithet for both parties at the moment.  

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

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