Obama: Going ‘all in’ for the Asian Century
The reaction in Asia to the dominance of U.S. power is only surpassed by a fear that the United States is in retreat.
As President Barack Obama traveled to Asia Tuesday for a four-country trip, this fear should be foremost on his mind. What many of Asia’s political and cultural leaders fear most, however, is the United States retreating inward while distracted by crisis after crisis — from Libya to Syria to Crimea. With China on the brink of becoming the world’s largest economy and the geopolitical puzzle pieces of the China seas seemingly in renegotiation, the Eastern world is asking where Washington stands. This is Obama’s moment to demonstrate the components of his much-heralded, but still largely undefined, tilt to Asia.
The stakes for Obama’s legacy as a world leader — and for the U.S. position as a Pacific power — could not be higher. The president was right to signal a “tilt” in U.S. policy toward Asia. He now has an important opportunity to carry the Asia pivot through to a conclusion.
Though many U.S. allies wring their hands about the prospect of Washington moving toward Asia and, they fear, away from Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, virtually all nations have been busy “rebalancing” their foreign policy and trade agendas toward Asia.
This does not reflect ideological or geographic preference, but reality. The Western economic powers — including the United States — have been precariously slow to recognize Asia’s rise as not only the new engine of the global economy but also as a potential source of challenge and conflict.
The framework for “world order” that was laid out after World War Two has disintegrated, as the emerging world powers push against Western global structures. While these trends are playing out dramatically on every continent, their most significant implications will likely occur in Asia. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns stated this in his recent speech on U.S.-Asia strategy at Asia Society.
“No region will be more consequential for American interests and for the shape of the global system than the Asia-Pacific,” Burns said, “… Never has there been a moment when it has been more important for the United States to underscore our commitment to the long-term ‘rebalancing’ of our foreign policy toward Asia.”
The most innovative strategic element of Obama’s tilt toward Asia is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that the administration is negotiating with 11 Asian and Pacific Rim nations that would account for some 40 percent of the world’s economic output.
Securing this agreement will mean the difference between the success and failure of the rebalance toward Asia. For the TPP is integral to locking in the basic conditions for a new age of prosperity on both sides of the Pacific. To be effective, TPP must engage China and India as well.
Some doubt that the 12 TPP countries will be able to strike an agreement. These doubts can’t be taken lightly, despite the skilled leadership of U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. Political hurdles in all 12 capitals put a deal at risk.
The United States is one obvious example. Many congressional leaders, reflecting the public’s growing populism, don’t support it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for example, has said he won’t even allow a vote to give the president the “fast track” authority he needs to demonstrate to TPP partners he can deliver a formal deal.
I have been on the front lines of U.S. trade negotiations. So I can attest that the fast track is crucial in order to finalize sensitive areas in an agreement.
To build vital momentum for TPP in the United States and abroad, Obama must unequivocally embrace TPP. Waiting until after the November elections to press for “fast track” authority may be smart politics, but not ideal for the agreement.
The president needs to fully explain the TPP’s economic benefits to Congress and the American public. This could help give the administration more of an opening to secure a narrowly-defined “fast track” authority needed ratify the deal.
Agreeing on the TPP will be a key step toward deeper cooperation across the Pacific. But it is only a first step.
Consider the Bilateral Investment Treaty now being negotiated between Beijing and Washington. While these negotiations may temporarily increase tensions between China and the United States, formalizing the rules for investment can help eliminate trade barriers and create new opportunities for economic growth.
Over the long term, Asians and Americans must go further. The two sides will have an opportunity to convert the win-win gains of trans-Pacific economic cooperation into a starting point for greater political collaboration and also to encourage cooperation on security and crisis management of flashpoints.
This mission — the basic challenge for Asia-Pacific peace in what many call the “Asian Century” — is both critical and daunting. The United States can best position itself for this if Obama announces three priorities on this trip:
First, Washington must truly invest in its rebalance of U.S. policy — expanding not just security investments, but also diplomatic, trade and development engagement and cooperation in Asia.
Second, Washington must recognize that engagement in the Asian Century means supporting the growing influence of Asian nations in world affairs at a level commensurate with their growing economic and political influence. The Obama administration, for example, has called on Congress to authorize proposed reforms to the International Monetary Fund that would increase the representation of emerging markets and developing countries, including rising Asian powers. This crucial change should become a presidential priority after Obama returns from the trip.
Third, government and civil society organizations, including the Asia Society, can do more to open the United States and advance areas of mutual concern, where there is the greatest potential for cooperation and collaboration.
With these priorities realized, the TPP agreement signed and further steps taken to open trade across the region the United States will have finally made a meaningful pivot.
PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama delivers remarks before presenting the Commander-in-Chief Trophy to the U.S. Naval Academy football team in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, April 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talks to President Barack Obama (R) during the opening session of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, March 24, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Herman
PHOTO (INSERT 2): U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman (C) speaks to media after meetings with Japan’s Economics Minister Akira Amari (not in picture) in Tokyo, April 10, 2014. REUTERS/Issei Kato
PHOTO (INSERT 3):President Barack Obama holds a tri-lateral meeting with President Park Geun-hye of the South Korea (L) and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan (R) after the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, March 25, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque