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How East Asia’s balance of power is shaping its US election stance

Both principles and pragmatism are at play in the region ahead of the presidential contest. 

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Underpinning the complex international relations of East Asia today is a crude reality: for each of Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, China is the largest trading partner, but the United States is the guarantor of security. As a result, in a region increasingly marked by competition between the two superpowers, economic interests often conflict with values, and pragmatism must sometimes trump principles.

On principles – including a commitment to the international order – the president of the United States was once a constant. Donald Trump’s disavowal of international norms by withdrawing from a number of multilateral initiatives, including the World Health Organisation, has complicated such considerations for East Asian publics. But an expansionist China and volatile North Korea, means that amongst administrations at least, support for the incumbent US president remains robust.

The challenges facing the region are numerous. In June, the same month that Beijing enacted its controversial National Security Law in Hong Kong, North Korea blew up a joint liaison office with South Korea in Kaesong, near its border. More recently, encroachments on Taiwanese airspace by Chinese military aircraft have increased; meanwhile, a trade war between South Korea and Japan rumbles on.

In Taiwan in particular, Trump’s tough stance on China has been welcomed by many. Since 1979, when the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing and signed the Taiwan Relations Act, Taiwan has relied on the “strategically ambiguous” backing of the US – meaning that Washington opposed any non-peaceful attempts to unify Taiwan with China, but would not state unequivocally whether they would assist in the event of a Chinese attack.

Numerous diplomatic coups for Taiwan have come under Trump’s watch. In March 2018, Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, encouraging cabinet-level visits between Taiwan and the US; and in March this year, he also signed the Taipei Act, encouraging better engagement between international organisations and Taipei. Finally, earlier this month, a new economic dialogue between Taiwan and the US was announced.

Concerns remain in Taipei, however, that too strident an approach from Trump after re-election – perhaps even overturning the US’s long-standing policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ – might prove a step too far for Beijing.

Beijing has already signalled its intent. From mid-September to October 11, fleets of Chinese military aircraft entered Taiwanese airspace on a total of 17 occasions. The incursions began in response to the visit to Taiwan of Keith Krach, US Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs. Krach’s visit was the second of a Trump administration official in two months, following that of Alex Azar, US Health Secretary, in August. (Azar’s trip was the highest level visit of a US official to Taiwan since the US severed ties with Taiwan in 1979.)

[See also: Electoral triumph for Taiwan's China-sceptic Tsai Ing-wen poses big questions for Beijing]

Furthermore, in a nation fiercely proud of its democratic system, some Taiwanese have criticised Trump for his behaviour domestically, especially the fanning of racial tensions and irreverence for democratic processes. Fan Chi-fei, host of a popular Taiwanese political talk show, said in August: “Why is that when we talk about China, all these issues suddenly become unimportant? Isn’t our difference with China that we don’t compromise on human rights?”

By contrast, Joe Biden has been viewed as a candidate for long-term stability, more able to re-engage the international community; in the 2020 Democratic manifesto, reference to the “one-China principle” was dropped in favour of support for the Taiwan Relations Act. Acknowledgement of the “one-China principle” is the basis of establishing relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC); accordingly, a country cannot simultaneously recognise the PRC and the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name.

However, Rath Wang, a committee member of a Taiwanese Americans for Biden group, predicts that, regardless of who wins, pragmatism will prevail. “China is not an imaginary threat,” he says. “These values are good to have, but if Taiwan’s gone, there’s no meaning to that.” Young, liberally-minded Taiwanese would stomach another Trump presidency if it meant protecting Taiwan’s self-governing status from China.

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Apprehension over Trump’s preference for unilateralism applies in Hong Kong too. Shortly after Beijing passed the National Security Law, severely limiting freedoms in the city, a memo published by the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington said: “retracting Hong Kong’s special status or imposing sanctions risks harming the people of Hong Kong without necessarily increasing the likelihood that Beijing changes course or pays political cost.”

On 14 July, Trump indeed revoked Hong Kong’s special status. “No special privileges, no special economic treatment and no export of sensitive technologies,” he said at the time. More measures have come since; in August, the US placed sanctions on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam; and earlier this month, the US State Department told Americans to “reconsider travel to Hong Kong”.

Still, given the broad bipartisan support for getting tough with China, it’s unlikely a Biden presidency would see a dramatic shift in policy on Hong Kong. As the US-China trade war festers, regardless of who wins the presidency, Hong Kong looks set to bear the brunt of collateral damage.

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In Japan, new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga inherits a complex brief. Although Suga is viewed as the conservative Liberal Democratic Party’s “continuity candidate”, reservations remain over his lack of foreign policy experience and inability to replicate the comradery enjoyed between Abe and Trump; Abe was the first foreign leader to meet Trump after his election victory, even before he was inaugurated.

The challenges facing Japan are not insignificant. The beleaguered Japanese economy shrunk at an annualised rate of 28.6 per cent between April and June, impacted by not just Covid-19 and the US-China trade war, but also one between itself and South Korea. The two key American allies are prone to spats over unresolved historical questions dating back to the Second World War; the current dispute began last year, when Tokyo removed Seoul from its list of trusted trading partners. Trump, with his preference for bilateral talks, hasn’t done much to build consensus.

However, Koichi Nakano, professor of Political Science at Sophia University in Tokyo, says that pervasive positive attitudes towards the United States in Japan means that sentiment is, “not that much affected by political change”.

Strong channels of communication with the Republican Party, alongside consensus on key issues – such as the primacy of business interests and hawkish foreign policy – indicates Tokyo’s governing party would prefer a Trump re-election. “He still makes people nervous,” says Nakano, citing his unpredictability, “but they are also happy that Trump is tough on China.”

[See also: Japan's longest-serving prime minister stands down]

If Biden were to win, the Democrats' greater emphasis on the promotion of democracy and human rights does not pose too significant a problem for Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party even though, Nakano says, “they are not issues the Japanese conservatives care that much about.”

“Containing China is also seen to make economic sense, so if the normative issues can be weaponized to attack China, a lot of right-wingers will be happy to use them,” Nakano says, referring to China’s poor human rights record.

Suga’s new administration is unlikely to fear a Democrat victory, but, due to Trump’s tough stance on China and prioritisation of business, his re-election is still the preferred outcome.

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Similar considerations are at play in Seoul, where President Moon Jae-in has come under criticism domestically for his relative silence on Hong Kong and Xinjiang. South Korea was absent from a list of countries that raised concerns over Beijing’s National Security Law in the United Nations in late June. Seoul sends over a quarter of its exports to China.

It’s a silence which complicates the "new Cold War" narrative often used to characterise current global relations – the notion that countries must ally themselves exclusively with either China or the United States.

South Korea has also been the target of Trump demands similar to those levelled at Nato states; since taking office, he demanded Seoul burden a 500 per cent increase in costs for the roughly 28,000 US troops stationed in the Korean peninsula. The Koreans didn’t agree to it. If re-elected, Trump is expected to make the same demands of Tokyo.

Still, James Kim, senior fellow at the ASAN Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, says that on cost-sharing, the Moon administration “called Trump’s bluff”, and never really thought he would pull troops out. Kim says the administration views him as, “the dog that barks very loudly...but he hasn’t taken a bite”.

Moon’s progressive party has also found an unnatural ally in Trump on North Korea. Issues of substance aside, the optics of an American president meeting with the leader of North Korea was significant for Seoul’s governing party, which favours dialogue with its belligerent neighbour.

“They have a stronger preference for Trump in that regard in comparison to Biden, because Biden is not the type that will just have a summit for fanfare,” James Kim says. Support for Biden in Korea comes from the conservative opposition; they view the spat over cost-sharing as undermining the security nexus upon which stability in East Asia rests.

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Historical tensions and conflicting interests boil beneath the surface of East Asia. The United States must seek to appease, not aggravate, the type of in-fighting between Tokyo and Seoul which China is only too happy to see.

The variables are changing, but the equation is the same; in the face of an expansionist China, economic dependencies, and a volatile North Korea, leaders of East Asia’s democracies have no choice but to get along with the occupant of the White House.

James Chater is a Taipei-based freelance writer. He tweets at: @james_chater

[See also: Why the left must condemn China's brutal authoritarianism]