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Obama misses big chance to prop his ‘pivot’ to Asia

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With Barack Obama back in Asia — in India for a landmark summit with new Prime Minister Narendra Modi — this week could well have emphatically underscored a strong message to and on Asia delivered during the U.S. president’s penultimate State of the Union address last week.

That, however, was not to be, as little was said about Asia in Obama’s 70-minute speech to the U.S. Congress and a watching nation and world.

Explicit reference to Japan was limited to Obama’s noting how the U.S. economy had surpassed Japan’s: “Since 2010, America has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined.”

What of the comprehensive trade agreement now being negotiated — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — by the United States, Japan and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations? Little was said.

The president called for “both parties [of Congress] to give [him] trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.” But then, Obama, quickly moved on.

And what of rising tensions in the South China Sea, as a wary Asia adjusts to a resurgent China, still the world’s second largest economy despite slowing growth rates? Obama was equally brief.

“In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules — in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, and how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief,” Obama said before pivoting to the topic of climate change.

Obama’s address to the U.S. Congress also said little to nothing about Southeast or South Asia, excluding Afghanistan, even as his trip to India quickly approached. And as for the once much discussed “Asia pivot,” or rebalance of U.S. foreign policy efforts to focus more on Asia, little has been heard from Obama recently in the midst of a disastrous midterm election for his political party and continued turmoil in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

With the eyes of America upon him, it’s understandable that Obama played primarily to a domestic audience and focused on hometown concerns in his State of the Union address. That’s unfortunate, as I argued in Fortune Magazine.

Before embarking for India, Obama had a chance to put his trip in the context of the enduring U.S. commitment to Asia. He missed the opportunity to further what could still be a hallmark of his administration — underscoring to Americans and Asians the importance of strengthened U.S.-Asia business, educational and cultural engagement. How about a “shout-out” to treaty allies Japan, South Korea or the Philippines?

Indeed, what could have been a “teaching moment” — on the value of strengthened trade and stronger ties with all of Asia — for American viewers as well as those watching from overseas proved to be a bust from an Asian perspective. Full of praise for what the president saw as his domestic victories, the speech said little of America’s relationship with the world’s most dynamic region, and why Asia matters to all of the U.S. — Wall Street to Main Street.

From initial words on disengagement — “for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over” (though some 15,000 U.S. troops remain) — to the less than diplomatic — “as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region [and] put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage” — references to Asia in what is typically the most watched presidential speech of the year were limited and brief.

Yet, there is much to say about Asia and the U.S. According to the East-West Center, a nonpartisan Hawaii-based think tank, Obama could well have underscored these facts to Americans:

• 28 percent of exported U.S. goods and 27 percent of U.S. services go to Asia;

32 percent of American jobs from exports depend on exports to Asia.

64 percent of international students in the U.S. are from Asia — contributing $14 billion to the U.S. economy.

8.5 million visitors from Asia contribute $41 billion to the U.S. economy.

39 states send at least a quarter of their exports to Asia.

To be clear, America’s security and prosperity are closely and increasingly linked to Asia and the Pacific. The region is home not just to China but also to two of the world’s largest democracies, India and Indonesia, as well as several nations, including Japan, that the U.S. is bound by treaty to defend.

Critically Asia also provides growing opportunities for U.S. trade, investment and entrepreneurship.

That’s a point that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry underscored at a speech at the East West Center in Honolulu in August 2014: “In the 21st century, a nation’s interests and the well-being of its people are advanced not just by troops or diplomats, but they’re advanced by entrepreneurs, by chief executives of companies, by the businesses that are good corporate citizens, by the workers that they employ, by the students that they train, and the shared prosperity that they create.”

Too bad that is a message that Obama chose not to share in his take from Washington on the state of the U.S. union, as Asia looked on. Whether delivered amid a state visit to India or in the hall of the U.S. Capitol building, the critical point remains: America matters to Asia, but Asia also matters to America. The state of the U.S. pivot to Asia is one that needs improvement.

Let’s hope that Obama and a Republican-controlled Congress can come together to make that happen.

Curtis S. Chin is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC., and a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.