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Trump couldn't change Asian policy even if elected, Columbia professor says

NEW YORK -- The 2016 U.S. presidential election has entered its final hours without a clear prospect of who will win. How will the outcome impact Asia? 

Gerald Curtis, Professor emeritus of Columbia University

Gerald Curtis, professor emeritus at Columbia University and the former director of Columbia's Weatherhead East Asian Institute, offered his views in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review.

He said Hillary Clinton will likely proceed with President Barack Obama's Asian "pivot" policy, combined with a tougher stance on China, while Donald Trump will try to make dramatic changes even in security relationships with important allies like Japan -- which may potentially stir debate in the nation about developing its own nuclear weapons to defend itself.

But rest assured, Curtis said, because America has strong institutions like the Congress, the Pentagon and the press, which will act as a check. The bigger concern for Asia, he said, is America's growing isolationism due to people's anger about social inequality and fear about their future.

Q: What do you think are the key differences between the two candidates' Asia policies?

A: In a nutshell, Clinton's Asia policy is about continuity. It's essentially more of the same -- that is, of the pivot and the approach that Obama and Clinton, as secretary of state, were pursuing. There's always fine tuning, but no big changes. And the cast of characters, the people who will be working with her on Asia, are most likely going to be the people who were working with her when she was secretary of state.

Q: And Trump?

A: As for Trump, nobody knows, because he doesn't know himself. He doesn't have an Asia policy. He doesn't really know anything in any depth about the region. If he were to become president, he would probably come in believing that he wants to make a lot of changes. But what kind of changes, he has no idea.

So I think, for an initial period of time, he may say all kinds of things, but people shouldn't take it too seriously, in my view, because it'll take at least six months or so for him to get his staff in place and begin to learn what it means to run a government.

Q: Are you saying that if Trump learns things along the course of the initial period, he will be more realistic?

A: I don't underestimate the dangers involved in him becoming president, in many different respects, including in terms of policy toward Asia. But there are two things that I think people, especially the Japanese, need to remember when they think about a Trump presidency, so as not to panic.

One is that we have a system of checks and balances that works pretty well, especially the Congress. And the media plays a very important checks-and-balances role. Also, it's not exactly checks and balances, but we have strong institutions, including the military. The Pentagon is a very politically powerful institution in the American system. And the idea that the U.S. president would do things like abrogating the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty -- the military simply would not let that happen.

And the same will happen when [Trump] gets "down in the weeds" about foreign policy -- he will have to deal with a State Department that is concerned about having a good relationship, and with a Treasury Department that is concerned about the currency and economic issues in general. So, all these institutions, and the Congress, make it very difficult for someone, even the president, to make dramatic and radical changes.

The second thing to remember is that, no matter who becomes president, the national interest doesn't fundamentally change. And the American national interest is to have a solid, stable relationship with Japan. It is essential for American policy in the region, both on the military/political and on the economic sides. So, at the end of the day, he would be very frustrated if he tried to make radical changes in American policy, because he'd run into all these domestic constraints.

I wouldn't be too relieved, though, because he could still cause a lot of trouble. On trade policy, he could do a lot, without the consent of Congress. And even on the political and military side, where he wouldn't be able to make fundamental changes, he could create an impression abroad that the U.S. is retreating into isolationism, and that, in itself, would create reactions.

Q: So, even if Trump tried to abrogate the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, you don't think there is any chance he would succeed?

A: No, none at all. I don't think there's any chance whatsoever. He would put a tremendous amount of pressure on Japan to do more, both in supporting the American troop presence in Japan, and also in putting Japan's Self-Defense Forces in harm's way -- in risky situations.

Q: If Trump became president, what would be the impact on the Japanese political scene or on society as a whole?

A: I can't give you a firm answer, because it really depends how the Japanese media dealt with a Trump presidency. There could be an overreaction. There could be an extreme right-wing reaction, saying, "Yes, we do need to have our own nuclear weapons, because we can't depend on the U.S.," or "Yes, we need to amend Article Nine [of the constitution] right away or else Trump's going to abrogate the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. A lot of what Trump says is what the extreme right has long argued for.

But if that's where Japan heads, it would be a disaster for the region and for Japan itself. So, if Trump does become president, then the most important thing is to be cool-headed, not to overreact, not to react too quickly to the things he says, but to give some time for things to settle down and to figure out what's going on. If [Japan] panicked, that would be the worst.

If he becomes president, he'll soon realize that our big issue in Asia is not getting Japan to do more, but how to manage relations with China. And to do that we have to have a good relationship with Japan.

Q: Regarding China, what are the differences between the candidates' stances? How different would they be from Obama's?

A: I think Clinton is more hard-line on China than Obama, and she, I believe, would take the view that we have to make it clear to China what our red lines are, and mean it. That is different from Obama, who drew red lines until they were crossed, like in the case of Syria. So, I think Clinton will be tougher on China on issues like the South China Sea, and on its trade and investment policies, particularly dealing with investment from foreign companies. I think the Chinese expect that, and that's why there seems to be some hope [there] that Trump will actually become president.

But at the same time, Clinton will try to work with the Chinese, especially on North Korea and on other regional security issues. So she'll be tougher but not necessarily anti-Chinese.

Q: And Trump's stance toward China?

A: Again, we're dealing with a man whose depth of knowledge is very shallow on Asia, to be overly complementary to him. But what we found with Trump is that he thinks everything is a matter of making a deal. As a real estate developer, first, you lay out your maximum demands. And then you figure out how much the other side is ready to give, and try to come to some kind of an agreement that is actually closer to what you really want.

And there may be something to that, because the Chinese are great at making deals. And the Chinese "will eat his lunch" -- he'll make a deal and they'll benefit from it. So, once he realizes that dealing with the Chinese is no simple matter and that he may end up like he ended up in Atlantic City, where all his casinos went bankrupt, he will discover that he doesn't have a China policy and that if he makes big mistakes we're going to be in a war. So, he'll be forced to back off.

Q: Both candidates have expressed opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty, a trade pact that was emblematic to the U.S.'s Asian pivot policy. What will happen to the treaty?

A: I think the TPP will not happen. Even if Clinton found a way to change her position, it would never pass the Congress, especially if the Democrats win a majority in the Senate. So I think, despite all the hard work involved, at least for the next couple years and maybe forever, it's not going to happen.

But it's important not to exaggerate the significance of the failure to pass the TPP. Trade will continue, with or without this agreement. If TPP fails, it will have zero influence on the American military presence in East Asia. It will have zero influence on America's commitments to come to Japan's aid if the Chinese decide they're going to invade the Senkaku Islands. It's a trade agreement. No more, no less.

Q: Nevertheless, the U.S.'s arbitrary stance on the TPP will change how Asian countries view the U.S., right?

A: First of all, I don't like the TPP agreement. I think it has a lot of problems. But, having said that, if the U.S. made such a commitment and made Japan and other countries pay a very heavy domestic political price to get their parliaments to agree to it and then said, "Sorry, we're not going forward" -- that would be just outrageous. It would be terrible, and it would be embarrassing. And it would hurt the U.S., in terms of its credibility.

Q: Would that impact the nature of the U.S.-Asia relationship?

A: If Clinton becomes president, she could repair a lot of the damage fairly quickly, because she will make a point of stressing the continuing commitment, the importance of Asia, for her and for American foreign policy. I think she could repair some of the damage.

All the countries in Asia recognize that China is a growing power. They think the U.S. remains the strongest country in the world and in the region, but its ability to balance Chinese power on its own and through its traditional alliance system is insufficient. So you see Japan developing security relations with Australia, with Vietnam, with the Philippines, with India, and trying to develop it more with South Korea.

You see people like [Philippine President Rodrigo] Duterte reaching out to China. Malaysia is kind of heading in the same direction. So there's a multipolar system emerging in East Asia, in which the U.S. is a major player but no longer the unchallengeable superpower it once was. That's the reality, regardless of who wins this election.

[Opposition to TPP] is significant because it signifies the growing concerns about the impact of globalization on the American working people. Globalization is great for American business and terrible for the American working man. This is Trump's argument, and there's a lot to it. At least a lot of Americans believe it.

Q: Regardless of who wins, this election has certainly done a lot of damage to the U.S. prestige. Why did this happen?

A: You've got to look beyond this election to understand what has been driving this kind of crazy electoral cycle, in which someone as unqualified for being president as Donald Trump is going to get well over 40-45% of the popular vote, and might even win. 

There are two answers. One is that there are a lot of Americans who are scared about their future. They're angry about inequality. They're worried about illegal immigrants coming in and working for very low wages and taking their jobs away. Their values are very different from the values represented by people like Hillary Clinton, particularly on issues like abortion, the role of religion in society, and on gun control. All these values issues are dividing up our country into two separate countries. It's very dangerous.

The second thing driving this phenomenon is that, with the collapse of the Cold War and the bipolar system, and the emergence of this more fluid and ambiguous multipolar system, Americans feel they are no longer in control of the world. And the natural reaction for a lot of Americans is, "If we can't control the world, let's leave it."

It's the combination of unhappiness about the domestic situation, especially on the inequality issue, and this concern that if we can't control world affairs, let other people deal with them, and why should we be paying 70% of NATO's budget? Why should American soldiers die to defend Japan, when Japanese soldiers have no commitment to die to defend the U.S.? These issues are much bigger than Trump. And on Nov. 9, these issues will still be there, as powerful as they are today.

Interviewed by Nikkei deputy editor Hiroyuki Nishimura.

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