If Hillary Clinton becomes president of the U.S., Asia might think it’s getting a friend in its corner. But, Asia would probably be wrong.
As President Obama’s first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton played a prominent role in policy initiatives towards Asia. However, if she becomes the Democratic Party’s candidate for president of the United States and wins the November elections, the nation’s policy may turn out to be less supportive than many in Asia were hoping for.
U.S. elections, like those of most other countries, are mostly focused on domestic issues. As U.S. Secretary of State (a cabinet position focused on foreign relations and foreign policy) from 2009 to 2013, Hillary Clinton has a lot of experience in international issues that she will try to use to her advantage. Regarding Asia, she set out a vision for American policy that became known as the American “pivot” strategy towards the Asia-Pacific (later rebranded as a “rebalance”).
Asia was in the midst of its growth story then, and the U.S. strategy indirectly set out to counter China’s increasing political and economic impact across the region. The goal was to refocus significant parts of foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region and encourage many of its partners outside the region to do the same. The U.S. policy emphasised specific themes: alliances, partnerships with emerging nations, regional institutions, trade and investment, military presence, democratic development and people-to-people ties.
Clinton’s first trip as Secretary of State in February 2009 was to Asia, visiting Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China. In 2010, she visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia as part of a regional tour. The same policy also had President Obama make his own trips to India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan. One of the most significant U.S. achievements in the region during that time was opening relations with Burma (Myanmar), where she voiced strong support of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the nation’s democracy.
With that in mind, if Clinton becomes U.S. president, should we expect her to connect with Asia in the same way and build on where she left off?
It’s not that clear-cut. Critics say the rebalance ran out of steam once she left her post. Under her successor John Kerry, Middle East diplomacy took center stage. And for all the promises, not all the Asia initiatives have been successful. But, Kerry has made his own trips to the region, the most recent to Laos, Cambodia and China the last week of January. Part of that trip was intended to lay the groundwork for Obama’s own trip to Laos in February to attend the meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
As part of the rebalance under Clinton, the Pentagon announced it would increase its total naval fleet dedicated to the Pacific by some 60 percent. Instead, critics note, the fleet shrunk from its 1980’s high of more than 500 ships to less than 300 today. Because of current cuts in U.S. defense spending, the fleet is expected to shrink further, into the 200-ship range.
Importantly, Clinton may choose an approach to Asia different from the one she supported as President Obama’s international envoy. China is a particular area of discussion. Before her time in office, she was against cooperating with China because of its human-rights record. She even suggested in 2008 that then-President Bush boycott the Beijing Olympics.
Her tone on the current election campaign trail has also been less conciliatory and suggests she may return to a harder line. Last July, she accused China of “trying to hack into everything that doesn’t move in America,” a reference to news of an intrusion into U.S. State Department personnel records. That suggests Clinton may take a different approach in addressing China’s growing military might and territorial aspirations. China has already questioned whether the broader rebalance concept is mostly aimed at reducing China’s influence in the region.
Looking across Asia, one area of contention is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the free trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim countries central to Obama’s strategy for the region. Clinton did not take a position while the TPP was being negotiated. After an agreement finally was reached in October 2015, she opposed the partnership. It’s not clear whether Clinton’s more recent comments on TPP and China are just campaign rhetoric to win votes, or represent how she wants to shape free trade in the region.
Compared with policies that other presidential candidates promote, however, a Clinton presidency appears more likely to adopt one increasingly geared towards Asia, boosting diplomacy and engagement with countries. One big obstacle is the Obama and Kerry shift in foreign policy priorities and world events that have occurred since she was secretary of state. The continuing actions and threats of an Islamic state group are a major issue the next U.S. president likely will have to focus on as its chief concern.