By Angela Greiling Keane
Barack Obama heads to Asia on Tuesday with an ace in his hand that wasn’t there last time he visited the continent—a long-awaited Pacific trade pact that’s just off the printer.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, years in the making, is a centerpiece of Obama’s self-proclaimed economic and security pivot to the region. Adding to the buoyancy for his trip as his presidency nears its end is a better-than-expected US jobs report this month and an overwhelming election win for Myanmar’s pro-democracy party led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The 12-nation TPP may give Obama leverage against China over issues such as its land reclamation in the contested South China Sea and cyber attacks linked to China on US corporate and government sites. While the TPP has a long road to be enacted and requires legislative approval in all nations, it goes beyond normal trade deals to include issues like intellectual property and state-owned enterprises.
“The TPP has long been the economic side of the president’s rebalance,” said Walter Lohman, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. “The region has been waiting for this to happen for some time and now it’s upon us.”
The White House sees the TPP as a security boon by linking economics with defense.
“The TPP helps to underscore what the president determined when he came into office, and that is that America’s interests are integrally linked to the Asia-Pacific region,” White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice told reporters before Obama’s trip. “This is where our security interests meet our economic interests in an undeniable way, and as such, you can rest assured that we will remain present, engaged and active across the region.”
Obama will meet leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Manila before traveling to Malaysia for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. The trade pact and South China Sea may dominate discussions. The terrorist attacks on Paris on Friday that came as a crisis in Syria and Iraq sends migrants fleeing to other countries are also likely to be prominent on the agenda, as they were at the G-20 meeting in Turkey.
While Obama comes with the TPP—a deal that covers about 40 percent of the global economy—in his pocket, Chinese President Xi Jinping will probably use Apec to again set out his country’s commitment to development and trade in the region. China has had success enlisting countries aside from the US to join its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and is promoting investment related to its dual “Silk Road” trading routes to Europe—one overland and one by sea.
China is also the largest trading partner of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, although countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam have drifted further into the US’s orbit as China’s actions in the South China Sea—a key conduit for global trade—cause unease.
The US is not a claimant in the South China Sea, but in the aftermath of World War II has helped preserve security in the region. The US and China are coming into greater proximity in the area as China expands the reach of its military and promotes its role as another great power.
The US recently sailed a warship close to a reef reclaimed by China in the South China Sea in what it called a freedom of navigation operation. Two US B-52 bombers were challenged by Chinese air controllers on a flight last week although the planes did not fly within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands.
Defense ministers met earlier this month ahead of the Apec summit and failed to reach agreement on a South China Sea statement after China opposed some of the language on the territorial disputes.
While Xi has declared that the South China Sea won’t be on the Apec agenda, the US and other countries are likely to bring it up. “I’m confident that it will be the subject of prominent discussion among the leaders that are gathered,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose said last week the Philippines has no control over whether leaders raise the territorial disputes when they meet.
Obama plans one-on-one meetings during his Asia stint with the leaders of Australia, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos and Canada, whose newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is attending his inaugural round of international summits. Xi is not on the list. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Obama met at the G-20, is skipping Ape, sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place.
Obama made Asia a stated priority from his early weeks in office, saying he wanted to rebalance US military and economic attention to the region. Still, the “pivot” has been called into question as events including Russian aggression and Islamic extremism in the Middle East have taken US time and attention. The sharp increase in Islamic State-linked terrorism in recent weeks will take the focus away from Asia again.
“We want the United States to be at the table in the Asia-Pacific, shaping the future of the region, and signaling we’re going to be present,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters before the trip. “When we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu.”