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Jeremy Au Yong
Friday, May 2, 2014

Asia

Obama's Asia trip lacks trade breakthrough

The Straits Times | Jeremy Au Yong | Friday, May 2, 2014

US President Barack Obama walks from Marine One to Air Force One for his departure home from Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on April 29, 2014.

WASHINGTON - When United States President Barack Obama began his fifth Asian visit since 2008 last week, attention was focused on whether he would be able to bolster wavering belief in his administration's Asia strategy.

Four countries and two defence pacts later, observers in the US capital say it is mission partly accomplished.

While Mr Obama did well to make the case that the US military will be committed to Asia, there was nothing to show on the trade front. And even though Washington's Pacific strategy relies on ramping up military resources in the region, it cannot succeed without trade.

Mr Ernie Bower, senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for South-east Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says even though the President might have convinced allies of his "serious intentions" to anchor in Asia, there are lingering doubts about the follow-through.

"To do that, the President has to sustain his focus, invest political capital in building support for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and think about next steps for economic engagement in Asia, and start building the political foundation for US engagement in Asia here in the United States."

Mr Obama's stops in Japan and Malaysia - both parties to talks on the TPP trade pact - yielded little to celebrate.

While all leaders gamely spoke about "progress", the lack of a concrete announcement, despite frantic talks leading up to the trip, is a clear sign that discussions have hit an impasse.

A key part of the problem for the Obama administration was its weakened bargaining position after it failed to get TPA approved by Congress. The TPA speeds up the consideration by Congress of any trade deal, as it blocks lawmakers from making amendments to the agreement, forcing them to approve or reject it as it is.

As long as Mr Obama does not have that authority, Asian leaders would surmise that it might not be worth risking domestic political capital to get a deal that will be stuck in the US Congress.

Says Dr Richard Bush, director of the Centre for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings Institution: "The most optimistic thing I have heard is that Washington and Japan are very close to a consensus on how the whole list of tariff lines should be changed. But, the thinking goes, Japan is unwilling to announce these as its final offer until TPA is passed, in order to open itself to post-TPA negotiations."

Adds Mr Bower: "This left President Obama with nothing really to show for trade on this trip, and it is a significant failure to grasp the geopolitical brass ring... A leader needs to close the loop and explain to Americans that economic leadership (through trade and investment) is intrinsically linked to the concept of security in the Asia Pacific."

Still, there were notable successes on the trip.

The deals that increase military cooperation with South Korea and the Philippines were largely welcomed in Asia and in Washington, as were the remarks by Mr Obama stating that the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands would be covered under the defence treaty the US has with Japan.

In fact, aside from trade talks that were likely doomed even before he left, observers say Mr Obama hit a lot of right notes on the trip, largely achieving the right balance of reassuring allies without ruffling too many Chinese feathers.

Yet, those achievements have thus far failed to make up for the problems. Some critics of the administration have even cast the trip as Mr Obama giving Asia what it wants in terms of military engagement without getting anything back in trade.

"Unfortunately for the administration, the trip was bogged down by the prevailing 'American weakness' narrative," says Mr Brian Harding, a former Pentagon official who has worked extensively on Asia policy.

"There was no amount of strategic messaging that could overcome this."

The President returned to Washington with a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showing his approval rating had sunk to a new low of 41 per cent from 46 per cent in the first three months of the year.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 30 in The Straits Times.

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