WASHINGTON, Nov 16, 2011 (IPS) – President Barack Obama intended to use the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting last weekend in Hawai’i to signal a shift in U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region.
This was not simply a geographic shift. With a presidential election approaching in 2012, the president is emphasising jobs, not war. When it comes to economic opportunity, Asia is where the action is.
“No region will do more to shape our long-term economic future than the Asia Pacific region,” the president announced at his press conference on Monday. APEC links the United States with 20 other countries, including Japan, Russia, South Korea, Mexico, and Canada, and accounts for nearly half of the world’s trade.
But the president did not have an easy time in Hawai’i steering U.S. foreign policy in a different direction. The Middle East overshadowed the APEC discussions, with the first question for the president at his press conference focusing on Iran and U.S. sanctions.
In fact, aside from the hot-button issue of economic competition with China, none of the journalists seemed very much interested in Asian matters. The chief focus of news coverage of the event was the president’s decision to break with the APEC tradition of forcing heads of state to wear native garb for a photo op.
The Obama administration has long wanted to reorient, literally, U.S. foreign policy. During their years of political exile under the George W. Bush administration, key foreign policy figures like Kurt Campbell complained of how Washington was ignoring Pacific affairs at its peril.
Although Campbell is now in charge of Asian affairs at the State Department and his current boss Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has worked hard to achieve this reorientation by visiting the region and attending regional confabs, the Obama administration has largely continued the Bush-era focus on fighting in Afghanistan and conducting counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan and around the Horn of Africa.
Even though Obama has largely fulfilled his promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, the Arab Spring has presented additional reasons to keep U.S. attention on the Middle East and North Africa.
The pivot toward the Pacific has been complicated by challenges from the region itself. North Korea, which the George W. Bush administration eventually decided to re-engage, has reacted negatively to Obama’s studied indifference to the country (a policy officially known as “strategic patience”).
Overwhelming opposition in Okinawa to plans to build another U.S. military base on this southernmost Japanese island has thrown relations between Tokyo and Washington into a slow spiral of decline. China, meanwhile, has both expanded its economic ties with countries in the region and asserted its claims more vociferously to islands in the South China Sea.
Over the decade or so that the United States has downgraded Pacific relations in its overall foreign policy agenda, it has lost economic influence, strained relations with allies, and missed opportunities to resolve differences with adversaries. To rectify this drift, the Obama administration has used APEC and the president’s trip to the region as an opportunity to solidify two initiatives.
The first is a stronger commitment to regional economic integration through free trade agreements. The shift to a regional strategy focused on Asia comes after a decade of failure.
Multilateral trade talks through the World Trade Organisation have been stalled for 10 years. The attempt to enlarge the North American Free Trade Agreement into a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas hasn’t moved forward either. Even bilateral trade agreements have been difficult to negotiate.
President Obama signed one recently with South Korea, but the parliamentary opposition in Seoul has rejected the agreement as currently written.
At APEC, leaders agreed to boost trade in green goods and technology and reduce their “energy intensity” by 45 percent by 2035. Energy intensity is a figure derived from energy use and energy efficiency.
What the United States didn’t achieve, beyond merely liberalising green trade, was an ambitious free trade area for the entire region. Dubbed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the agreement reflects the president’s earlier scepticism about free trade by proposing stronger environmental and labour standards.
But the United States has also insisted on including a controversial measure on investors’ rights that has served as a lightning rod for criticism in the region. Under this provision, included in most other U.S.-sponsored FTAs, corporations can sue national governments for regulations that purportedly interfere with the bottom line.
The TPP, which counts nine of the 21 APEC countries as members, expanded to a dozen by the end of the APEC summit, with Japan, Mexico, and Canada signaling their interest in joining.
It’s not just the sheer number of countries that will make TPP negotiations difficult. The major challenge comes from the country that so far lies outside the club, namely China, which has negotiated its own bilateral trade agreements and explored alternative regional trade orders.
China could well join the TPP at some point. But the United States has not been exactly welcoming, with President Obama noting in Hawai’i that China will have to “play by the rules”. Beijing, meanwhile, might not like some of these rules, like the ones associated with labour standards or intellectual property rights.
China is equally concerned about the new security agreement that Obama concluded with Australia on this trip that will bring a new contingent of U.S. Marines to the northern port city of Darwin. Beijing has long been sensitive to what it considers the U.S. encirclement of its borders through strategic partnerships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Pakistan, and so forth.
The upgrade in relations with Australia, as Li Hongmei writes in China’s official Xinhua News, “has raised concerns among some analysts that it could complicate the already volatile situation, escalate regional tensions and damage relations with China.”
What neither Beijing nor Washington will admit, however, is that the Obama administration is acting as much from a position of weakness as from a position of strength. The surge of Marines in Australia is in part a response to the difficulty of negotiating a new Marine base in Okinawa. The push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is an acknowledgement that the United States has lost considerable ground economically to China in its trade relations with Pacific countries.
The Pacific pivot that the Obama administration has tried to execute around the APEC summit has inadvertently underscored not only its previous indifference to Asia but also the limited power that the United States now possesses to reinsert itself into the economic and security realities of the region.