Obama Asia pol­icy faces test over trade


Crit­ics have long pre­dicted that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s pol­icy to shift Amer­ica’s fo­cus to­ward Asia is doomed. The leg­isla­tive bat­tle over his trade agenda could prove the acid test.

Leg­is­la­tion to smooth the way for a free-trade pact with 11 other Asi­aPa­cific na­tions hit a wall in Congress last week. A fresh vote in the House was set for Thurs­day to try to re­verse that set­back. For­mi­da­ble ob­sta­cles re­main— prin­ci­pally, op­po­si­tion from Obama’s fel­low Democrats who be­lieve trade deals cost Amer­i­can jobs.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion it­self has al­ways pre­sented the Tran­sPa­cific Part­ner­ship as cru­cial to its “pivot” to­ward the in­creas­ingly pros­per­ous Asian re­gion, af­ter a post-9/11 pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of­fi­cials have been at pains to point out the pol­icy means more than ramp­ing up Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary pres­ence to counter ris­ing-power China.

But the ad­min­is­tra­tion was slow off the blocks in the po­lit­i­cally prickly task of get­ting con­gres­sional sup­port for “fast track” au­thor­ity for the pres­i­dent to ne­go­ti­ate trade pacts that law­mak­ers can ap­prove or re­ject but not amend. That’s viewed as es­sen­tial for win­ning even­tual U.S. rat­i­fi­ca­tion for TPP.

The up­shot is the cur­rent log­jam in Congress. Obama and his leg­isla­tive al­lies — which in this case are mostly Repub­li­cans — were con­sult­ing Wed­nes­day to find a way a way through it.

While plans were yet to be fi­nal­ized, of­fi­cials said the House could have a stand-alone vote on fast track on Thurs­day. A pack­age of aid for work­ers who lose their jobs be­cause of im­ports would be­come part of a sep­a­rate bill. The two mea­sures were orig­i­nally com­bined into one, to sweeten the deal for union-backed Democrats, who voted against it any­way last Fri­day. That po­lit­i­cal set­back was greeted with an­guish by Asia ex­perts in Washington and for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials.

Larry Sum­mers, a for­mer di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil in the Obama White House, wrote that un­less the trade leg­is­la­tion votes were suc­cess­fully re­vis­ited, it would “doom” the TPP. “It would leave the grand strat­egy of re­bal­anc­ing U.S. for­eign pol­icy to­ward Asia with no mean­ing­ful non­mil­i­tary com­po­nent,” he said. Obama, who was born in Hawaii and spent some of his child­hood in In­done­sia, has de­scribed him­self as “Amer­ica’s first Pa­cific Pres­i­dent.” He took of­fice be­liev­ing that in no small mea­sure, Amer­ica’s fu­ture is tied to Asia’s, as the cen­ter of global eco­nomic growth has shifted east­ward.

His grand strat­egy to el­e­vate Amer­ica’s pro­file in the re­gion has been wel­comed both in Washington and in Asia, where China’s as­sertive be­hav­ior in dis­puted mar­itime ter­ri­to­ries has un­nerved its neigh­bors.

But skep­ti­cism has grown.

Obama’s For­eign Pol­icy Faces


Pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with crises in the Mideast, cuts to the U.S. aid and de­fense bud­gets, and do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal woes have all been held out as rea­sons for Obama’s sig­na­ture for­eign pol­icy to fail. The pivot has var­i­ously been de­scribed by crit­i­cal U.S.-based com­men­ta­tors as “de­funct,” suf­fer­ing a “slow death,” “shrink­ing” or in need of a se­ri­ous “re­think.”

This time, how­ever, the cri­sis of con­fi­dence is more acute in the Asi­aPa­cific it­self.

Aus­tralian Trade Min­is­ter An­drew Robb told Aus­tralian Broad­cast­ing Corp. on Wed­nes­day that TPP na­tions could be just one week’s ne­go­ti­a­tion away from com­plet­ing the agree­ment, but if fast track isn’t re­solved in the next two or three weeks, “I think we’ve got a real prob­lem with the fu­ture of the TPP.”

New Zealand Trade Ne­go­ti­a­tions Min­is­ter Tim Groser said the prob­lems in Congress could stall the agree­ment un­til 2018.

Sin­ga­pore’s For­eign Min­is­ter K Shan­mugam put the U.S. dilemma in broader but starker terms.

“Do you want to be part of the re­gion or you want to be out of the re­gion?” he told a Washington au­di­ence this week.

That said, not ev­ery­one is sold on strate­gic ne­ces­sity of the TPP for Amer­ica in Asia.

Obama has cast TPP as an op­por­tu­nity for the U.S., rather than China, to shape trade rules, by set­ting stan­dards on la­bor, en­vi­ron­ment and in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty. China is start­ing to put its im­print on the world’s fi­nan­cial ar­chi­tec­ture — long dom­i­nated by the U.S. — by es­tab­lish­ing an Asian in­fra­struc­ture bank this year.

But Chas Free­man, who was Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s main in­ter­preter on his his­toric trip in 1972 to re­vive ties with com­mu­nist China, wrote in a re­cent com­men­tary that it was “fan­ci­ful” to present the new trade rules of the TPP as piv­ot­ing the U.S. into a last­ing po­si­tion of supremacy in China’s backyard.

“China is now ev­ery­body’s big­gest trad­ing part­ner, in­clud­ing Amer­ica’s prospec­tive part­ners in TPP,” Free­man wrote.

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