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Final presidential debate offers no solace for U.S.-Japan relations

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Staff Writer

The conversation that has so far taken place in the run-up to this year’s U.S. presidential election, highlighted by the third and final presidential debate Wednesday, has been a nightmare for Japan.

Throughout the campaign, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has held the United States’ biggest ally in Asia accountable for job losses and massive debt in the world’s largest economy.

For her part, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who once supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, has kept up a barrage of attacks on the pact, which Japan is hoping to soon ratify.

On Wednesday, in a 90-minute showdown in Las Vegas, Trump passed on his last chance to reach out to the undecided voters he badly needs to keep his presidential campaign viable and instead repeated hard-line conservative positions on issues such as abortion, immigration and trade.

With less than three weeks left in the race, Trump is behind Clinton in most battleground states.

The debate for Trump was a continuation of his strategy to ensure his most fervent supporters show up on Election Day, while betting that his attacks on Clinton’s character and truthfulness will discourage voting by already skeptical young and liberal Democrats.

But experts who study voter behavior warned that his attacks on Clinton may backfire, saying he may instead awaken Democratic voters who have so far been uninspired by their party’s candidate.

In Las Vegas, Trump resorted to the same rhetoric as in the two previous debates he tried to appeal to supporters who feel that bad foreign policies and trade deals are hurting the U.S.

“As far as Japan and other countries, we are being ripped off by everybody in the world. We’re defending other countries, we’re spending a fortune doing it,” Trump said during the debate.

He added, “We have to tell Japan, in a very nice way, we have to tell Germany, all these countries, South Korea, we have a say, ‘You have to help us out.’ ”

Clinton, however, underscored the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance as a former secretary of state who, during her stint, tried to connect with Washington’s Asian allies more closely while re-engaging the U.S. in the region, where China’s economic and military presence is on the rise.

“Donald wants to tear up our alliances,” said Clinton. “I think it makes the world safer and, frankly, it makes the United States safer.”

What is apparent is that the U.S. is suffering a mounting deficit. The nation’s national debt is tipped to be 77 percent of the its gross domestic product by year-end, the highest since just after World War II.

But foreign policy experts argue that it makes more economic sense for the U.S. military to keep its bases in Japan and South Korea than having troops dispatched from U.S. soil in times of emergency in Northeast Asia.

Tokyo paid ¥192 billion to support the U.S. military for the current fiscal year through March, according to the Defense Ministry.

Clinton also condemned Trump’s stance on nuclear weapons, in which he encourages U.S. allies to have them. She also accused Trump of being “very cavalier, even casual, about the use of nuclear weapons.”

“There’s about four minutes between the order being given and the people responsible for launching nuclear weapons to do so,” she said. “And that’s why 10 people who have had that awesome responsibility have come out and, in an unprecedented way, said they would not trust Donald Trump with the nuclear codes or to have his finger on the nuclear button.”

Trump and Clinton also battled over the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Clinton calling Trump Putin’s puppet and Trump charging that Putin had repeatedly outsmarted Clinton.

The two candidates also had a spirited exchange on abortion, gun rights and immigration during the showdown, while Trump continued the line that he will refuse to accept the election’s outcome if he loses and ratcheted up his claim that the election is rigged against him.

In a debate that for the first time focused more on policy than character, the two candidates nonetheless lashed out at each other.

Trump called Clinton “such a nasty woman,” and accused her campaign of orchestrating a series of accusations by women who said he had made unwanted sexual advances. He also said the Clinton Foundation is a criminal enterprise and as a result she should not have been allowed to seek the presidency.

In the end, the third debate did not offer much solace to Tokyo in terms of the future of the 12-nation free trade framework, as Clinton rejected it in the strongest terms.

“First, let me say, No. 1, when I saw the final agreement for TPP, I said I was against it. It didn’t meet my test. I’ve had the same test — does it create jobs, raise incomes and further our national security?” said Clinton. “I’m against it now, I’ll be against it after the election, I’ll be against it when I’m president.”

Critics say the negative views about the alliance and TPP created during the campaign could disadvantage Japan, even if Clinton, who is likely to inherit U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, becomes the American president.

“The election definitely created a climate where Obama cannot push for the TPP ratification during the lame-duck session, and it would be hard for Clinton to move for it soon after the election,” said Masaru Nishikawa, a professor that specializes in U.S. politics at Tokyo-based Tsuda College.

“The next president will also have to accommodate some of the inward-looking views on the U.S.-Japan alliance, if not as outrageous as Trump’s.”

Information from Reuters added