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 U.S. 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 region 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, 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 last week on U.S. 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 U.S. made progress in strengthening old alliances with such nations as the Philippines, forging deeper ties with Indonesia and Vietnam and befriending former pariah state Myanmar.
There were missteps, also. 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 area — a few hundred U.S. Marines in Australia, new warships rotated through Singapore — have fueled Chinese accusations of a U.S. policy of containment while making little impact on regional security.
Asia got little mention in Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, adding to perceptions in some quarters that the strategic 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 reality the TPP and a separate trade deal under negotiation with Europe, saying the accords 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 will 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 bills introduced three weeks ago will go nowhere soon.
While that legislation is co-sponsored by another 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 is in the rare position of having more support for a key policy among his political rivals, the Republicans, than from his own party.
The ambassadors of Japan and Vietnam both say they want the TPP framework to be completed before Obama visits Asia in April.
Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s ambassador to Washington, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week that fast-track authority is needed because there are worries the U.S. will seek changes to the TPP. He also acknowledged challenges remain on auto and agricultural products between the biggest players in the ongoing talks — the U.S. and Japan.
The good news for Washington was that the Japanese and Vietnamese envoys remained strongly supportive of the U.S. role in Asia, viewing it as a stabilizing influence in 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.