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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (March 8, 2004)

Would Asia vote for Kerry?

Scott Thompson (Professor, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy)

(Originally appeared in the March 8, 2004 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission from the publisher)

A Japanese diplomat said: "America drags the entire world into its four-year scramble. So much rides on the outcome for us - and we don't even have a vote." This year, at least, the major parameters have been set early. It is a race between George W. Bush and John Kerry for the White House - and it is only March. For that we can give thanks.

If Asia did have a vote, whom would the major players support? Let's take the easy cases first. Japan is a pretty clear win for Mr Bush. The obvious tradeoff between support for Mr Bush's Iraq policy and Washington laying off Japan's yen manipulation gives Tokyo breathing space as it organises - finally - a real recovery. To get to this stage, it had to deploy troops abroad to a war zone for the first time, against the nature of its constitution. But more than this, Japan's government has never been comfortable with American liberals. Tokyo likes the kind of deals it can make with Mr Bush's people - hard-nosed and quiet.

Taiwan would pull out all the stops for Mr Bush. Senator Kerry's emphasis on "strategic ambiguity" over America's proposed response to any mainland aggression against Taiwan is a red flag to the island's leaders. If President Chen Shui-bian wins re-election and if the two referendums - calling for increased missile deployment and for a zone of "peace and stability" between Taiwan and Beijing - are overwhelmingly endorsed, the strategic environment will certainly be tense, until the new realities have settled in. Washington will continue to veto independence, but officials in Taiwan know Mr Bush's people like them and would support them at the drop of a hat. Taiwan's survival will be wholly dependent on America's commitment.

China is the hardest case to call. Beijing resents the Bush administration's refusal to yield over its support for Taiwan. But at least Mr Bush is the "devil they know". And know him they do: the "summit" at Mr Bush's Crawford ranch was an appreciated honour for then president Jiang Zemin in October 2002.

The latest annual strategic survey by the International Institute of Strategic Studies said that Beijing wishes to "minimise external distractions" and concentrate on its economic reform agenda. That is fine by Mr Bush.

Senator Kerry was, for a long time, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs, and said perhaps too much about human rights for Beijing's liking. Moreover, he has frequently insisted that China cannot be a "strategic partner", adding in a speech four years ago, "but it is not an enemy". He has not shifted that lukewarm stance in the meantime. Mr Bush, in that same period, has gone from election talk about "strategic competition" with China to an almost congenial relationship with Beijing.

Washington diplomats are impressed by what they consider the dramatic maturing of Beijing's foreign policy, where deals and trades are routine, and rhetoric is in steady decline. Beijing's diplomats have returned the compliments. In the defining areas, like North Korea, Beijing and Washington operate from radically different perspectives and interests. Yet they have been able to make steady progress. My guess is that Beijing would also vote for Mr Bush.

Finally, what about Korea - the hottest flashpoint? Senator Kerry is far more in line with the new South Korea - where anti-US sentiments are almost common. "John Kerry believes that the United States should be prepared to talk directly to North Korea," his foreign policy adviser, Rand Beers, said. This position is far more congenial for President Roh Moo-hyun than Mr Bush's stance, which calls for some form of multilateralism in talks - and is relying on Beijing, ultimately, to use its leverage over Pyongyang.

But how will the two men fare in the place where people do have a vote. If the White House thinks it will have as easy a time branding Senator Kerry a wet liberal, as George Bush did the former Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis in 1988, it is in for a surprise. Senator Kerry is savvy and smart, and knows that trap. Whether his party can be as focused is the big question. But more than ever, America is two countries. The recently rich south is far more conservative, and there, the "moral majority" is pretty much in charge. Senator Kerry has done well in southern primaries, but that does not mean anything against a clever tactician like Mr Bush, who feels comfortable driving a pickup truck and wearing jeans.

In the end, barring surprises, the election will turn on two things: which man more people feel comfortable with, and whether the south and southwest maintains its hardened support for the Bush presidency. The first is almost certain to favour Mr Bush over the aristocratic and often disdainful Senator Kerry. Moreover, Mr Bush has managed to turn all his past weaknesses into strengths - by becoming a born-again Christian. There are skeletons in Senator Kerry's closet and US presidential candidates are scrutinised like no one else. As a one-time neighbour, I will not be surprised if the election turns on this issue of character - and that issues are unearthed that can be used against him.

The second factor depends on political organisation and money, and remains to be seen. If they had to bet on the likely outcome, rather than personal preference, most professionals would give better odds to Mr Bush. Overall, Asia will breathe a sigh of relief.

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