In a message that appeared directed at a wary Japan, Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton offered reassurances that as president she would honor security commitments in Asia as she faced off against Republican nominee Donald Trump in their first presidential debate Monday in New York.
Yet the barbs exchanged during the heated debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, underscored that Japan, for better or worse, will need to recalibrate its security and economic policies depending on the winner of the Nov. 8 election.
Unlike previous presidential elections, which have traditionally focused on the economy and other domestic issues, this year’s campaign has involved issues that are also critically important to Tokyo.
During the debate, Trump reiterated his position that U.S. allies — including Japan — must dole out more cash if they wish to continue being protected by the U.S. military, a stance the real estate mogul has maintained since his campaign’s start and one that has deeply troubled America’s partners.
“They do not pay us what they should be paying us because we are providing tremendous service and we’re losing a fortune,” Trump said. “We can’t defend Japan … they may have to defend themselves or they may have to help us out.”
Despite Trump’s comments, Japan increased host-nation support for the U.S. military in 2016 in a bid to underscore the importance of the alliance.
The outlay for the so-called sympathy budget hit ¥192 billion — the most in seven years.
Clinton, a former secretary of state known as one of the main drivers behind the U.S. “rebalance,” or “pivot,” to Asia, used her time onstage to try to put to rest fears of an American withdrawal from the region.
“I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them,” Clinton said.
“It is essential that America’s word be good,” she added. “I know that this campaign has caused some questioning and worries on the part of many leaders across the globe. … But I want to — on behalf of myself, and I think on behalf of a majority of the American people, say that, you know, our word is good.”
Clinton also savaged Trump over his policy on nuclear weapons in Asia.
“He has repeatedly said that he didn’t care if other nations got nuclear weapons, Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia,” Clinton said. “It has been the policy of the United States, Democrats and Republicans, to do everything we could to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He even said, well, you know, if there were nuclear war in East Asia, well, you know, that’s fine.”
Clinton’s reassurances come at a time when the credibility of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence has been called into question by rapid advances in atomic weapons technology by North Korea, which conducted its fifth nuclear test Sept. 9.
“I think that there was a surprisingly large amount of discussion on the U.S. and its alliances during this debate,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. “Usually, this topic does not garner much discussion in the U.S. presidential election debates — but because of Trump’s recent incendiary comments on the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK alliance, as well as NATO, it has become an issue of contention.”
ROK is the acronym for South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.
Clinton also had pointed words for nations clamoring to see a U.S. decline in Asia, according to Miller.
“Clinton stressed that it is ‘essential that America’s word be good’ and promised to ‘stand up to bullies’ in the international landscape — a not-so vague barb aimed at Russia and China,” he said.
Some critics believe the U.S. rebalance to Asia has been a spectacular failure. They claim that despite a broad shift in military and economic assets to the region, it has not been able to rein in a recalcitrant China. Often cited are China’s massive land-reclamation projects in the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing has been building military-grade infrastructure, including radar and airfields.
Washington has also faced turbulence with an important ally in the region: Manila.
President Rodrigo Duterte, dubbed the Trump of the Philippines, has blasted the return of a consistent U.S. military presence in the country, while expressing hopes of cozier ties with China and Russia.
The next U.S. commander in chief — and his or her take on regional security in Asia — is also of great interest to Tokyo.
Between Clinton and Trump, the former top U.S. diplomat has appeared to be the more proactive of the two, at least in terms of reaching out to key U.S. allies in Asia.
Last week, she met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York, where he was attending the U.N. General Assembly. The two agreed on the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance amid the escalating tensions in the region.
Although the meeting was at the request of Clinton, it was a rarity: Japanese leaders generally do not meet U.S. presidential candidates during campaigns, let alone just one of them.
But despite the similar views Abe shares with Clinton on security issues, one of Tokyo’s biggest concerns — as well as a key part of the U.S. rebalance — is the future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal.
Ratification of the TPP is one of Abe’s top priorities in the current extraordinary Diet session that kicked off Monday.
But with the U.S. Congress set against giving it a stamp of approval, some critics say the TPP is essentially dead in the water.
While Trump has opposed the pact from the beginning, Clinton — who initially embraced it as an integral part of the Asia rebalance — flip-flopped on the unpopular trade deal late last year.
“You called it the ‘gold standard of trade deals,’ ” Trump said. “And then you heard what I said about it, and all of a sudden you were against it.”
Although Clinton rejected Trump’s claims at the debate, she did in fact refer to the TPP as the “gold standard” of trade deals during a visit to Australia in 2012.
According to figures by The New York Times, Clinton has expressed her support for the trade deal 40 times.
At Monday’s debate, however, Clinton attempted to soften her earlier statements.
“I hoped it would be a good deal,” she said. “But when it was negotiated, which I was not responsible for, I concluded it wasn’t.”