The US election campaign, the most negative in living memory, will mercifully end tomorrow when the voters go to the polls not only to decide between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry but on a raft of security policies, including those that influence US relations with Asia.
Disputes over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and postwar endeavors there have dominated the debate to the neglect of almost every other security issue except for sporadic arguments over coping with North Korea's nuclear aspirations.
Even so, sifting through the candidates' statements turns up clues as to what a Bush II or a Kerry administration would do in Asia and on issues such as alliances, nuclear proliferation, and redeploying US forces, all of which affect Asia.
Both Bush and Kerry are committed to forcing North Korea to give up its ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons, with their differences seeming to be more in style than substance.
Bush insists on negotiating through the Six-Party Talks arranged by China that also include South Korea, Japan, and Russia. Direct US-North Korea negotiations go on inside that format. The senator would emphasize bilateral negotiations but in the context of the six-party talks.
They differ, however, on making concessions to North Korea. Secretary of State Colin Powell made clear during his recent trip to Asia that the US would remain firm in demanding that the North Koreans show good faith before anything more would be forthcoming from the US.
Kerry appears to agree with the Chinese and South Koreans who urged Powell to take a more "flexible" stance toward North Korea, "flexible" seeming to be code for "appeasement."
On policy toward a China that is emerging as a political, economic, and military powerhouse, Bush and Kerry have differed but not on the same points. Bush has been skeptical and vacillating on political relations with China while Kerry has been critical of the US deficit in trade with China, which is headed for a record US$150 billion this year. Kerry has also criticized what he calls the export of US jobs to China.
Differences show up, moreover, on the sensitive issue of Taiwan. Bush cites the Taiwan Relations Act that obligates the US to help Taiwan defend itself. Kerry has advocated a "one-country, two systems" in which Taiwan would surrender to China.
Bush would seem to have the upper hand in relations with Japan as he has cultivated personal relations with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the point where he has referred to that association in his campaign to assert that onetime enemies can become friends.
Kerry, in contrast, has no special connection with Japan. His policy statement says only that he would "strengthen America's already strong relationship with Japan."
The statement says much the same about US relations with South Korea, with no recognition of the rising anti-Americanism in Seoul.
Of Southeast Asia, neither candidate appears to have set out a position even though the Philippines and Thailand are allies and Singapore has become increasingly important to the US. Terror, piracy, and smuggling are expanding threats.
On wider issues, Bush has said he prefers to work within multinational alliances but has made clear that he would go it alone if potential allies bow out. Kerry has emphasized the need to act within alliances and through the UN.