With the Iowa caucus Monday, the primary voting process that will select Democratic and Republican candidates to run in the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election has begun. Over the next four months, American, and international, attention will be focused on the primary races, and who emerges as their party’s standard-bearer.
The election is being closely watched in Japan, as well, for its impact on bilateral relations as well as what a new U.S. president might mean for Japan’s role in East Asia, especially in terms of military security and regional trade.
Who are the main candidates?
For the Democrats, there are two: former Secretary of State and ex-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
For the Republicans, there are, on any given day, five or six candidates who get a lot of attention in foreign policy circles and/or the media. They include business mogul Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. (and brother of former President George W. Bush) Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and former CEO of Hewlett Packard Carly Fiorina.
What are their policies with regard to Japan?
Although none has laid out a detailed proposal for how a given candidate’s administration would work with Japan, the rivals’ general statements so far, with the exception of Trump and, to a lesser extent, Sanders, are probably best described as Washington status-quo thinking on military issues, but divided on trade issues, especially the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement.
Clinton is the most experienced candidate in terms of dealing with Japan, and her philosophy differs little from some Republicans. As Secretary of State, she was a strong advocate of a U.S. “rebalance” (formerly a U.S. “pivot”) to Asia, and has called the U.S.-Japan alliance the “cornerstone” of America’s regional engagement. As president, she would seek to strengthen U.S.-Japanese military cooperation, as well as bilateral cooperation on a host of political, strategic, and economic issues.
Her main challenger, Sanders, has said little about foreign policy in general, making him the target of criticism by foreign policy experts who want a strong U.S. military presence abroad and charge that he’s an isolationist. On Asia, however, Sanders has indicated that he sees China as a potential threat and has said that the U.S. must work with the international community to stop it from building up its military.
On the Republican side, Jeb Bush said he views Japan and South Korea, as well as Australia, as important allies, and that relations with all will need to be strengthened. His foreign policy advisers include a number of people who served with his brother. He has called for increased defense spending to counter China, especially in the area of cyberwarfare.
Perhaps the Republican candidate who has said the most about U.S.-Japan relations so far is Rubio. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last April, around the time Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the U.S. Congress, Rubio said the U.S.-Japan alliance was at the center of America’s efforts to counter an increasingly belligerent China, to realize the TPP agreement, and to settle “disputes based on the rule of law, not usurpation of land, military expansionism and conflict.”
In August, Rubio said the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea belong to Japan.
Cruz, on the other hand, has indicated that while he is concerned, along with other countries in Asia, about China’s territorial ambitions, American allies like Japan need to do more. This suggests his view of U.S. military alliances in Asia, and the U.S. role in them, might be more limited than what either Clinton or some of the other Republicans envision.
Fiorina has made comments that indicate she’d take a tough stance toward China, and that she has strongly hawkish foreign policy views. She’s said she would engage in a large military buildup and invest more money in supporting allies like Japan, especially in the area of cybersecurity. Carson has said little about Japan.
What about Republican front-runner Trump?
Trump has made a number of statements that have infuriated foreign policy experts and raised concern in the U.S. and Japan.
In December, he told a group of supporters that the U.S.-Japan relationship was unfair because if somebody attacked Japan, the U.S. would “have to immediately go and start World War III. If (the U.S.) gets attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so fair.”
Yet despite the criticism from many quarters, that sentiment is widely shared among American politicians and policymakers (and many in Japan) who pushed for Japan to revise its collective self-defense measures last year.
How do candidates view the TPP?
Trump and Sanders have been the loudest critics, for different reasons, and Fiorina is also opposed. Rubio and Cruz were once supporters, but they began backtracking after the deal was announced in October and the text of the agreement was released, stating concerns about the fine print and indicating they were now taking more of a wait-and-see attitude. Carson has expressed cautious support for TPP, while Bush has expressed strong support for the agreement.
Clinton also once indicated she supported the TPP. But after the agreement came out, she said she could not support it “at this time” based on what she’d seen. This earned an angry retort from Japan’s former chief TPP negotiator, Akira Amari, who said she would disgrace the dignity of the American flag if she opposed it as president.
There is a widespread belief that Clinton, if president, would find a way to support it. But with a recent report by Tufts University predicating the TPP would mean 448,000 job losses in the U.S. over a decade, and a statement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, saying that a congressional vote on the TPP should be delayed until after the election, candidates may find themselves under greater pressure over the coming months to take a clearer stance, which will impact both the U.S.-Japan relationship and U.S. allies in the region.