AP Anal­y­sis: Trade vic­tory boosts Obama, US in Asia


A leg­isla­tive vic­tory on trade this past week has given a vi­tal boost to Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ef­fort to deepen U.S. en­gage­ment in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion. His ad­min­is­tra­tion also nav­i­gated wor­ry­ing ten­sions with main­land China by stress­ing at high-level talks in Washington how the two pow­ers can co­op­er­ate on is­sues of global con­cern, like cli­mate change.

But there was sober­ing news from Asia with im­pli­ca­tions for U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

In Myan­mar, where the U.S. has been a cham­pion of demo­cratic re­forms, par­lia­ment re­jected con­sti­tu­tional changes to di­lute the mil­i­tary’s role in pol­i­tics. The leg­is­la­ture also blocked the prospect of op­po­si­tion leader Aung San Suu Kyi con­test­ing for the pres­i­dency in cru­cial Novem­ber elec­tions.

Main­land China’s ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions have be­come a source of grow­ing ac­ri­mony with its neigh­bors and the United States. On Fri­day, Philip­pine of­fi­cials said China was press­ing ahead with con­struc­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands in the dis­puted South China Sea, a mas­sive land recla­ma­tion pro­ject Bei­jing had said would soon end.

And in Thai­land, Amer­ica’s old­est ally in Asia, there were fur­ther signs that the mil­i­tary junta is tight­en­ing its grip af­ter a year in power. The timetable for free elec­tions re­mains un­cer­tain, mean­ing the U.S. re­la­tion­ship with Thai­land will con­tinue to be strained, even as the U.S. pre­pares to fill its am­bas­sado­rial va­cancy there.

The ta­pes­try of con­cerns shows that Obama’s strate­gic mis­sion in Asia is a com­plex one. Since his first term, his ad­min­is­tra­tion has sought to in­crease U.S. diplo­matic, se­cu­rity and com­mer­cial ties there.

That mis­sion, and the pres­i­dent’s legacy, got an im­por­tant boost with the con­gres­sional ap­proval this week of “fast-track” au­thor­ity en­hanc­ing Obama’s abil­ity to ne­go­ti­ate trade deals.

That paves the way for the U.S. and 11 other na­tions to fi­nal­ize the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, the main eco­nomic el­e­ment of his so-called “pivot” strat­egy to Asia. Fast track en­ables the pres­i­dent to present a ne­go­ti­ated deal that law­mak­ers can ap­prove or re­ject but not amend, a ne­ces­sity if the mar­ket-open­ing deal is to gain even­tual rat­i­fi­ca­tion.

It was a re­mark­able turn­around. Just two weeks ago, Obama’s own Demo­cratic Party had dealt him an em­bar­rass­ing de­feat on fast track. Now trade ex­perts be­lieve Obama’s ne­go­tia­tors could fin­ish the deal with the other na­tions by early fall and that Congress could vote on it by year’s end. That would quell per­cep­tions that the U.S. is al­low­ing main­land China, the main trad­ing part­ner for most of Asia, to set the re­gion’s in­ter­na­tional eco­nomic agenda.

But far from Washington, a mar­quee achieve­ment in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s push to ex­pand Amer­i­can in­flu­ence in South­east Asia suf­fered a set­back.

Sit­u­a­tion in Myan­mar

Myan­mar’s par­lia­ment, where the mil­i­tary re­tains a heavy in­flu­ence and is guar­an­teed one-quar­ter of the seats, voted Thurs­day against end­ing the mil­i­tary’s veto power on con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments and chang­ing the rule that stands in the way of Suu Kyi com­plet­ing a Man­dela-like tran­si­tion from po­lit­i­cal pris­oner to na­tional leader.

Obama was the first sit­ting U.S. pres­i­dent to visit Myan­mar, also known as Burma. The coun­try’s shift from re­pres­sive mil­i­tary rule and open­ing to the West re­flects his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s will­ing­ness to reach out for­mer foes, and has been held up as an ex­am­ple that other re­pres­sive gov­ern­ments could fol­low.

But the fail­ure to re­form the junta-era con­sti­tu­tion be­fore the elec­tion is likely to in­ten­sify crit­i­cism of U.S. haste in lift­ing sanc­tions against Myan­mar, where in­ter­na­tional con­cern has also grown over per­se­cu­tion of mi­nor­ity Mus­lims that has spawned a re­gional refugee cri­sis.

Demo­cratic Rep. Joe Crow­ley and Repub­li­can Rep. Steve Chabot said in a joint state­ment that the mil­i­tary’s scotch­ing of con­sti­tu­tional re­form “so­lid­i­fies con­cerns that the coun­try’s up­com­ing elec­tions can­not be free, fair, or cred­i­ble.”

In Thai­land, mean­while, the junta can­celed an event at the For­eign Cor­re­spon­dents’ Club in Bangkok, where a hu­man rights group had wanted to launch a re­port about Viet­nam.

Demo­cratic Sen. Ben Cardin told a Se­nate hear­ing his “pa­tience is run­ning thin” on Thai­land hold­ing elec­tions as law­mak­ers con­sid­ered the nom­i­nee to fill the po­si­tion of am­bas­sador, va­cant since Novem­ber. The nom­i­nee, Glyn Davies, said “job one” would be to urge a re­turn to democ­racy and break­ing the cy­cle of pe­ri­odic mil­i­tary coups.

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