Obama’s Asia Policy Set Back by Democrat

US President Barack Obama at a town hall style meeting with students and faculty at Binghamton University in New York on Aug. 23, 2013. (Photo: Reuters / Jason Reed)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s Asia policy took a hit last week, and it came from a member of his own party.

The top Democratic senator, Harry Reid, announced that he opposes legislation that’s key for a trans-Pacific trade pact that is arguably the most important part of Obama’s effort to strengthen American engagement in Asia.

Since Obama rolled out the policy, most attention has been on the military aspect, largely because it was described as a rebalance in US priorities after a decade of costly war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But officials have increasingly stressed that Obama’s foreign policy “pivot” to Asia is about more than cementing America’s stature as the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific as China grows in strength. It’s about capitalizing on the region’s rapid economic growth.

That’s the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, an ambitious free trade agreement being negotiated by 12 nations, including Japan, that account for some 40 percent of global gross domestic product.

“The pivot is the TPP right now,” Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, told a conference at a Washington think tank this week on US policy and the outlook for Asia in 2014.

The Obama administration’s Asia policy has been welcomed by countries wary of China’s rise and expansive territorial claims. During the president’s first term, the United States made progress in strengthening old alliances with nations like the Philippines, forging deeper ties with Indonesia and Vietnam and befriending former pariah state Burma.

There were missteps. Angry politics at home forced Obama to withdraw from the East Asia Summit last fall, raising some questions about his commitment to the region. New military deployments in the Asia-Pacific—a few hundred Marines in Australia, new warships rotated through Singapore—have fueled Chinese accusations of a US policy of containment while making little impact on regional security.

Asia got little mention in Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday, adding to perceptions in some quarters that the pivot has dropped in the administration’s policy agenda in the president’s second term.

But he did urge both parties in Congress to approve so-called fast-track legislation needed to make the TPP and a trade deal under negotiation with Europe a reality, saying it would open new markets and create American jobs.

The problem for Obama is that many of his fellow Democrats are against fast-track authority, which would require Congress to act on the trade deals negotiated by the administration by a yes-or-no vote, without the ability to make any changes.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, said Wednesday that he opposed fast-track authority and that lawmakers should not push for it now—a comment suggesting that legislation introduced three weeks ago will go nowhere soon.

While that legislation is co-sponsored by a senior Democrat—Obama’s nominee to become the next ambassador to China, Sen. Max Baucus—many in the party join with labor unions in opposing lowered trade barriers, which they worry will cost jobs due to increased competition.

So in a bitterly divided Washington, Obama’s in the rare position of having more support for a key policy among his political rivals, the Republicans, than from his own party.

But top Republicans who want fast-track authority accuse the administration of failing to do its part to mobilize support for it among Democrats in Congress—a task that will be complicated by the midterm elections in November. Lawmakers will be careful to avoid measures that could hurt their prospects of re-election.

In an e-mailed comment Friday, US Trade Representative Michael Froman remained upbeat about the TPP, saying that momentum developed to advance the TPP talks in 2013 is carrying over to 2014. He said the administration is working closely with Congress and is committed to bringing home a deal “worthy of broad support from the American people and their representatives in Congress.”

Ambassadors of Japan and Vietnam both say they want TPP negotiations to be completed before Obama visits Asia in April.

Japan’s Kenichiro Sasae told the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week that fast-track authority is needed because there are worries the United States would seek changes to the agreement. He also acknowledged challenges remain on auto and agricultural products between the biggest players in the TPP, Japan and the United States.

The good news for Washington was that the Japanese and Vietnamese envoys remained strongly supportive of the US role in Asia, viewing it as a stabilizing influence in a region beset by territorial disputes. Those tensions have heightened fears of a conflict, as China stakes its claims to contested islands in the East and South China Seas.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that from the president on down, the United States “could not be more committed to our relationship with Asia.” Despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s deep involvement in high-stakes Mideast diplomacy, this month he will make his fifth trip to the region since taking office a year ago.

One Response to Obama’s Asia Policy Set Back by Democrat

  1. A generation ago the NAFTA free trade agreement was supposed to help Mexico develop its economy, to keep their illegal immigrants from coming to the US. Currently the US is wondering what to do with an estimated eleven million illegal immigrants.

    Now a trade deal between the US and South East Asia is supposed to thwart Chinese expansion. Not too likely. Just like Obama’s red line on Syria, his administration never bothers to think beyond the first move of the chess game. Just move one of the chess pieces to show that you’re actively playing the game.

    I wonder which of Obama’s political supporters would benefit from this one. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could get their gangster friends to help buy them a mansion? How to repay them? Rolex’s for everyone! But don’t expect Burma’s gas and oil to fetch top dollar.

    And if the public squawks, he’ll just call it another “phony scandal” and get one of his generous political supporters to conduct the investigation, just as he recently did to “investigate” his administration’s use of the (supposedly nonpolitical) IRS to fight the Republicans through overt politicization of the US’s tax policies with regard to 501c4 approvals.

    Don’t expect the US’s NSA to help much with China. After extracting billions of pieces of metadata from US citizens’ emails and telephone records, the NSA made claims of its vast importance in fighting terror. After being continually pressed to be specific, they recently confessed to having only one victory from this. They caught one person in America attempting to send $8,000 to Somalia. This was after spending millions, if not billions, of dollars extracting metadata from Americans under a program supposedly legal. And with Obama’s recent State of the Union statement that he’s going to try to rule as much as possible by presidential decree, instead of using Congress to pass laws, it’s clear to see that the US is using its intelligence community mostly to CONTROL its own people, rather than watching China. They’ll watch China also, but that’s just a side show.

    As for China, they’re just mocking their neighbors over the new Chinese island territories. Chinese is reeling in the islands like a fish on the line. And all of the oil and gas in the surrounding seas.

    It takes wit for the US to help South East Asia with this. Good luck! Obama is getting his jollies by acting like a dictator, while paying off his supporters for the privilege. Give some nice speeches, and nobody will know the difference. Maybe they’ll give him another Nobel Prize. (Sorry DASSK, the currency got debased.)

    Bottom line: Poland signed a non-aggression treaty with Germany soon before Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Do you think Poland should have sought a free trade agreement instead?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available. Comments with external links in the body text will be deleted by moderators.