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International relations

A shaken Asia awaits America's midterm verdict on Trump

A 'blue wave' would embolden Democrats to push back against the president's Asia policies

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last year.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Governments across Asia will be closely watching the results of Tuesday's midterm elections in the U.S., where gains for the Democratic Party would embolden opponents of President Donald Trump to push back on his policies in the region.

Trump has shaken up Asia since coming to power nearly two years ago. He triggered a trade war with China, sought to upgrade ties with Taiwan, attacked allies such as Japan and South Korea, and even became the first sitting U.S. president to meet a North Korean leader.

Tuesday's elections have been billed as a de facto referendum on Trump and the policies of his administration. Polls suggest that the Democrats will take back the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Congress, but may struggle to wrest control of the Senate from the Republican Party.

While Beijing is likely to be monitoring the outcome more closely than other Asian governments, it may not see any immediate changes in Washington's stance should the Democrats make advances.

Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank, sees the president's policies on trade with China as being close to the traditional Democratic view.

Those Democrats who prefer the U.S. take a confrontational stance toward China are therefore unlikely to give Trump a free hand on any potential presidential trade deal. Even as a minority in Congress, Democrats have pushed back against many of Trump's policies and posed challenges for his administration. If they take the majority, they will "have a much higher profile and could have some impact on how Trump deals with those issues," Lohman said.

Reiteration of support for the Republicans, on the other hand, could embolden the president and his protectionist streak.

A so-called "blue wave" that gives the Democrats control of both the House and Senate would give them significantly more influence and improve the odds of their proposals being passed into law. Even control of just the House would give the Democrats direction-setting powers by enabling them to call hearings on issues of their choice.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank, said there is not as much polarization on party lines when it comes to foreign policy as on domestic policy issues.

However, he said do not rule out possible shifts in tone and policy toward Asia after the elections. "There is a significant divide, particularly on rights, democracy, how the U.S. should conduct diplomacy abroad, and on other very important issues like climate change," Kurlantzick said.

Democrats could "use hearings and legislation to highlight human right abuses that they feel have not been given enough attention" such as those in Myanmar, China and the Philippines, he said.

Trump has had a positive relationship with the Philippines, and his administration is expected to move toward talks on a free trade agreement. But this would require congressional approval, and could be complicated if the Democrats make the extrajudicial killings under President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war a significant foreign policy issue.

A push to hold China accountable for human rights abuses against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang could also prove a stumbling block for any steps to improve Sino-U.S. relations.

On North Korea, the Democrats have been tempering their general preference for diplomacy with their mistrust of Trump's judgment.

Some analysts see a good result for the Republicans as enabling Trump to push on with plans for a second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, while Democratic majorities in both or either house would lead to demands for concrete action on denuclearization.

U.S. President Donald Trump walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their June summit in Singapore.   © Reuters

Kurlantzick is not convinced that Democratic majorities would significantly influence North Korea policy. As it stands, he said that politicians on both sides are concerned that Trump is not "applying enough scrutiny" and is "going forward with sort of unnecessary lavishing of praise on someone who is overseeing brutal human rights abuses."

"That said, a lot of Democrats are not necessarily going to criticize" a policy that reduces tensions and which could "possibly -- even if it's a very unlikely possibility -- get the North Korean regime to denuclearize, or at least stop building more nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles."

South Korea will be gauging any impact on North Korea policy, but its recently revised free trade agreement with the U.S. is unlikely to be affected as it is not subject to ratification by Congress.

Moon Jeong-hee, an economist at KB Securities in Seoul, said Republican wins in both houses could strengthen Trump's protectionism and burden South Korea's export-driven economy. He said the unresolved issue of auto tariffs risks "conflicts over trade."

For Japan, a potentially divided U.S. government could sap momentum from upcoming bilateral talks on trade. Tokyo will also be watching how a change in the composition of the legislature would influence the debate over restricting U.S. trade partners from engaging in foreign currency intervention or entering trade deals with China.

The election results are unlikely to affect Washington's recent moves to upgrade relations with Taiwan, where there is agreement across the political spectrum that the U.S. should do more for the island.

Both major U.S. parties also broadly agree on Washington offering military aid to Southeast Asian nations to counter Beijing's attempts to fortify control over much of the South China Sea.

Voting ends at 9 p.m. in New York (11 a.m. Wednesday in Tokyo). Exit polls will be broadcast immediately, with results coming in throughout the Asian day.

Nikkei staff writers Zach Coleman, Kim Jaewon, Kiran Sharma, Cliff Venzon and Mitsuru Obe contributed to this story.

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