Next week US President Barack Obama will visit Southeast Asia for the annual ASEAN leaders East Asia Summit as well as a number of other forums to increase his face-time with top Asian officials. Top of the agenda will be finalising the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations which Mr Obama pledged to complete before the end of the year.
The last round of negotiations held two weeks ago in Washington made no substantial progress on many sectors and only addressed 10 of the 20 “chapters” proposed by the TPP. Notably, a working group tasked with addressing environmental concerns made only a measly 40% of their predicted progress.
Major US business trade groups are not happy about the direction of the talks especially regarding intellectual property, which most other TPP participants demand to complete the agreement. On top of this, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, and Chile recently upped the ante by offering to eliminate tariffs on all agricultural and industrial goods, which will puts pressure on Japan to open up its politically sensitive agricultural market.
Even if the next talks can make significant progress on finalising the agreement, the White House has limited chance of pushing the package through Congress. The vast scope of the TPP and the recurring trade protectionism from within many negotiating countries is worrying top officials in Washington. So despite the Office of the US Trade Representative’s best efforts the TPP may not even reach the fast track in Congress.
Certainly, the US President’s planned attendance at the various South Asian forums is a good indication of American commitment to the region. This sign is timely because it was beginning to look like the current administration had chosen the Middle East as the centre of its geopolitical vision.
The stalling TPP talks are part of an emerging incoherence within the current US administration. With ongoing domestic fiscal problems in the US, considerable doubt is being thrown on Mr Obama’s efforts to pass the TPP successfully in his proposed schedule.
Part of the reason for the problems emerging with the TPP is geopolitical distraction. Syria has dominated the world’s media cycle over the past few months as the US government hoped against hope that it wouldn’t have to launch military strikes on the country after Syrian President Bashar al Assad called the American bluff banning the use of chemical weapons.
Mr Obama’s strategic gaff opened the door for Russia to try its hand at world-stage diplomacy despite its obvious regional, not global, power. In so doing, years of American grand strategy aimed to limit Russian influence in the Middle East now teeters.
US officials are in damage-control mode trying to clean up what can only be called a very amateurish attempt at international relations which hasn’t actually fixed anything in Syria. All this while the Asia Pacific is ignored and those countries begin to question American resolve to build greater interaction.
This American obsession with the Middle East is to be expected. After all, fighting a decade-long war in the region doesn’t offer easy or painless paths for exit. But the US will have rethink their tendency to react to every niggle in the Middle East if it wants to seriously convince other - more strategically important - countries in Asia that they can rely on the US as long-term partners.
The Obama administration’s thrust was always to remove America from distracting wars and focus on emerging Asia Pacific countries. The previous Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made numerous visits to marginal and major nations throughout the region during her time, setting up what should have been an easy win for the US.
The TPP negotiations were a part of this refocusing of resources. Instead of stepping back into isolationism once the wars finish, the idea was to simply “pivot” and bring the power of the American economy and military juggernaut to the world’s fastest-growing region. But if their true focus remains firmly on dealing with the Middle East, then any suggested commitment to Asia starts to look a lot like empty rhetoric.
Mr Obama’s visit to Southeast Asia might very well be viewed by other nations as preferring to build his personal reputation rather than construct a coherent and long-lasting geopolitical strategy. Only unobservant officials in Asia should expect the pivot policy to be as robust in its continuation as it started out.
Putting oneself in the shoes of the Philippines or Japan, threatened by a rising China and facing the consequences of a diluted TPP agreement, the repetitive pat-on-the-back assurance of American attention without much physical interest must be disconcerting.