I watched the final days of the US presidential campaign from South Korea and Hong Kong — two democracies in upheaval. While I was there, tens of thousands of Koreans marched through the streets of Seoul, demanding the resignation of their president, whose popularity has fallen to the low single digits after a string of scandals.
And hundreds to thousands of Hong Kong residents clashed with police to protest China’s interference in Hong Kong law and its attempt to bar several opposition politicians from taking their seats in parliament.
Despite the political chaos, or perhaps because of it, in each city I visited I was asked about the US election: asked to explain what was happening, how two unpopular candidates could be dominating and what the election of Donald Trump would mean. The biggest concern from the questioners’ point of view was the global uncertainty such an outcome would produce. In South Korea, where the leadership is losing legitimacy and the economic and security environment is unstable, locals feared that a Trump victory would only add to the confusion. In Hong Kong, where the “one country, two systems” is steadily eroding into “one country, one system,” the question posed was whether the underlying ideology of US foreign policy would remain the same and whether the country would continue to support democracy in Hong Kong.
An unpredictable behemoth
The United States is incredibly influential across the globe, economically, politically, socially and in terms of national and regional security. In many ways, an unpredictable United States seems more menacing than a hostile United States. The latter can be countered, adapted to, understood; the former is like being trapped in a room with a wild gorilla — no one knows just what it will do, but whatever it does, even if nothing, it will have an effect. That may be a poor analogy, but the point stands: The United States appears to be entering a phase of unpredictability, and the importance of that uncertainty is hard to overstate.
I spent my last day in South Korea in Incheon, site of the US amphibious landing that altered the course of the Korean War. When I left my hotel midmorning, the breathless announcers on US cable television were outlining victory for Hillary Clinton. After visiting the Incheon Landing Memorial Hall and logging back on to a wifi network, it was clear there had been a massive reversal and that Donald Trump was now projected to win. The South Korean press reported that its government would hold an emergency National Security Council meeting to discuss what a Trump victory would mean for the US-Korea alliance.
During his campaign, Trump averred that US allies needed to pay a greater share of the costs of US protection and suggested that it wouldn’t be so bad if South Korea and Japan considered developing nuclear weapons of their own as part of a regional deterrent strategy. That would be a major change in the way the United States currently views East Asian security, and for a small country like South Korea surrounded by large powers and a hostile neighbor, it could significantly alter its own sense of national security. Since that time, Trump has reportedly reassured the South Koreans that there will be no rapid change in relations. Nevertheless, there are clearly going to be alterations to how the United States deals with its allies and competitors abroad.
Any US president operates under tight constraints, not only because of relatively short term limits and the balance of power inherent in the US system but also because of the nature of the international system. The US president is just as often responding to global events as trying to shape them proactively, if not more so. But that does not mean that different administrations don’t have different priorities. Asian countries expected Hillary Clinton to double down on the United States’ current poorly defined pivot to Asia policy. A Trump administration might go a different direction, creating a more protectionist model of economic and trade policy. This would dash hopes for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal and may open up the US-South Korea free trade agreement to renegotiation. Moreover, any disruption in economic activity between China and the United States will necessarily affect other Asian economies, which are closely tied to China’s.
Hong Kong would be particularly affected by a change in US-China relations. If US foreign policy shifts from an ideological model based on the promotion of democracy to a more isolationist model with a hint of mercantilism, the country may be less inclined to intervene in the affairs of emerging democracies, such as Hong Kong.
Though the People’s Republic of China may welcome this change in part, it could also mean that the United States will be more willing to target China’s currency and to actively counter Chinese efforts to create an alternative banking and finance system. Hong Kong’s concern is that in the absence of US pressure to democratize, China will assert more complete control over the Hong Kong political system, particularly as China relies less and less on Hong Kong economically.
For South Korea, Hong Kong and China, Trump’s election is unnerving not because of any clear policy changes it portends but rather because of the uncertainty it has created. It is easier to adapt and adjust to a known than an unknown, and given the size and international role of the United States, this unknown could have substantial consequences. At a time when South Koreans are unsure whether their president will even serve the rest of her term and when Hong Kong is unsure whether China will allow its elected legislators to take their seats, the confusion stirred by the US election seems particularly troubling. For the next few months, these governments will furiously try to defog the future of the global order, including by considering worse-case scenarios — but with the partisan divide in the United States more clear than ever, finding objective and impartial information on which to base their assumptions will not be easy.
RODGER BAKER STRATFOR