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Keith B. Richburg: Asia faces big changes, whoever wins the White House

Hillary Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Convention at Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center on July 27.   © Getty Images

The party conventions have ended, the general election battle is underway in earnest -- and America stands to be profoundly changed, regardless of which candidate is ushered into the White House in November.

Democrat Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, and Republican Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate developer and reality television star, used their party conclaves in July to outline starkly different views of the country and visions for where they would take it. The world, and particularly Asia, will see an immediate impact from the election result.

Without a doubt, a Trump presidency would bring the biggest shift in America's international relations, since foreign policy is the area where U.S. presidents have the most leeway to act without Congressional approval -- and also because a Trump administration would mark a dramatic reversal from seven-and-a-half years of the leadership of Barack Obama, who called himself "America's first Pacific president."

Where Obama sought to strengthen America's engagement with Asia -- diplomatically, economically and militarily -- through a policy known as "the pivot," Trump has embraced a stance he calls "America First." Trump appears to favor withdrawing from the world to focus on America's internal problems, halting trade deals he sees as unfair to the U.S., and altering decades-old security alliances with South Korea and Japan.

He would impose a 45% tariff on all imports from China as a response to what he calls Beijing's unfair trade tactics -- which would prompt retaliatory measures from China.

Trump would walk away from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal negotiated under Obama and awaiting Congressional ratification -- likely spurring Asians to complete work on a competing trade group, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes the 10 Southeast Asian countries plus China and five others, but not the U.S. That would leave China the dominant economic power in the region.

Trump would seek to impose some type of temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S., which could impact travelers from Indonesia and Malaysia as well as Thailand, the Philippines and India -- all countries with large Muslim populations.

He has suggested he would withdraw American troops from military bases in Japan and South Korea if those countries did not pay more for keeping them. Southeast Asians would be doubtful of continued U.S. backing in their ongoing dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea and would likely seek a new accommodation with Beijing. That would leave China the region's dominant military power.

Also, without the guarantee of the decades-long U.S. security umbrella, Japan and possibly South Korea might look at developing nuclear weapons to counter the hostile, enigmatic regime in North Korea, which already has a nuclear arsenal.

Trump would also be likely to invite the Mexican president to Washington to try to force Mexico to pay for the construction of a wall along America's southern border. He has also vowed to impose a 35% tariff on goods from Mexico, which would spark retaliatory trade duties from the Mexican side. Such a move would devastate the supply chains of many American companies that have come to rely on Mexico for parts and assembly.

THE ALTERNATIVE Now compare that to what is likely to come from a Clinton presidency. There is certain to be more continuity with Clinton, particularly in foreign policy, since she was Obama's first secretary of state. But there are some critical differences.

Clinton is known to be more hawkish than Obama, and more amenable to the use of American military force. She voted in favor of the Iraq invasion, while Obama launched his national career with a 2002 speech calling the Iraq venture "a dumb war." Clinton was more eager than Obama to launch the airstrikes on Libya that toppled Moammar Gadhafi. And Clinton has called for a stronger U.S. intervention to stop Syria's civil war, including imposing a no-fly zone.

Clinton is intimately familiar with Asia, making the region her first stop as America's top diplomat. She can take credit for much of the "pivot" policy -- the term came from an article she wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in October 2011.

Clinton put the weight of the U.S. behind Myanmar's democratization process -- and later took some of the credit for the successful elections that brought Aung San Suu Kyi's party to power. And she forcefully inserted the U.S. into the South China Sea dispute, sparking anger from Beijing when she declared in Hanoi in 2010: "The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons and respect for international law."

China's leaders today fear that a President Clinton might put human rights at the top of America's foreign policy agenda, take a more forceful role in the South China Sea, and beef up America's military ties with allies like Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. With Trump, on the other hand, China's leaders fear a trade war. "The choice for China," wrote one commentator in the China Daily newspaper, "may well be between the devil and the deep blue sea."

PREDICTIONS So who is likely to win in November? Opinion polls in late July had the race a virtual toss-up. But two new August surveys following both conventions showed Clinton pulling into the lead, between 7 and 9 points ahead of Trump. Both candidates have historically high unfavorable ratings.

Clinton begins with the large geographic and demographic advantage enjoyed by any Democratic candidate in any normal election year. With 18 solidly Democratic states, including New York and California, and the "Obama coalition" of African-Americans, Hispanics and young people, Clinton needs to win only a few of the dozen contested "swing states" to prevail.

Those states -- including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin -- are populated by the disaffected white working-class voters, many without college education, who propelled Trump through the primaries. These voters may be susceptible to Trump's message to "make America great again" by punishing China with high tariffs and building a wall on the border with Mexico.

Trump, a businessman who has never held elective office, would reimpose torture as an instrument of U.S. policy, cut taxes on the wealthy, begin deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, build that wall and walk away from existing trade deals and treaties, including the Paris climate change agreement. America could also become more isolationist, jettisoning old alliances and retreating inward.

With Clinton, the first woman president, America would get an unabashed progressive who would move the country closer to the Western European model of paid family leave, higher taxes on the wealthy, and, if she had her way, an expansion of government-provided health care. She would push to give legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, fight climate change through regulating greenhouse gases and appoint liberal judges. America could also become more assertive militarily around the world.

Either candidate could win. And each would usher in a historic change for America and the world.

Keith B. Richburg is an Asia-based writer and former foreign editor of the Washington Post.

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