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.