Daniel W. Drezner

Standing still = falling behind in the Pacific Rim

Standing still = falling behind in the Pacific Rim

Throughout the course of the Bush administration, a constant irritant in the Asia/Pacific region was Bush’s tendency to place antiterrorism at the top of the queue in Asia/Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) discussions.  Not that anti-terrorism wasn’t important, but APEC was not the proper forum for that — APEC is all about regional economic integration.  China, by wanting to talk about trade, made a lot of diplomatic headway by distinguishing itself from the United States.

I bring this up because, according to the FT’s Edward Luce, it looks like the Obama administration’s policy malaise on trade is not winning it any allies in East Asia

In a meeting with President Barack Obama last week, Lee Kuan Yew, the veteran former prime minister of Singapore, said he felt privileged to meet the US leader at a “time of renewal and change in America and during a period of transition where the world order is changing”.

At private meetings around Washington, however, Mr Lee’s message was rather more blunt.

“You guys are giving China a free run in Asia,” he told Fred Bergsten, the director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The vacuum in US policy is enabling the Chinese to make the running.”

Mr Lee’s timing was apposite. On Wednesday Mr Obama leaves for Tokyo for a regional tour that will include China, South Korea and Singapore, where Mr Lee’s government is hosting a summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum this weekend. Surveys in each country show that Mr Obama’s popularity has helped to restore the battered US standing in the region.

But the views of Asian governments do not always chime with those of their public. Across the region, concern is rising about the absence of US leadership on trade since Mr Obama took office. Few believe that he has the will or power to restart the Doha round of global trade talks – and he has not asked Congress for a renewal of the presi- dent’s fast-track negotiating authority.

Fewer still believe that he will be able to ratify the landmark 2007 US-South Korea free-trade agreement in the face of strong hostility in Congress….

while globalisation gets steadily less popular in the US, other parts of the world are moving ahead. South Korea recently concluded a free-trade deal with Europe. Japan is holding similar talks with the European Union. Ironically, the EU broached the talks as a way of protecting itself against the trade-diverting effects of the now moribund US-Korea deal.

US business lobby groups are hoping Mr Obama will be able to achieve some kind of a breakthrough in Seoul next week. Given that it would be futile for him to send the free-trade agreement back to Capitol Hill, any new steps would have to include a renegotiation of the deal to include better market access for US cars.

“It is really important to understand just how badly the US is screwing itself on trade,” said Mr Bergsten. “By having an inactive trade policy, others are rushing to fill the vacuum.”

For an administration that claims it wants to have better relations with its allies, Obama and his foreign policy team have been remarkably tone-deaf when it comes to trade policy. 

At every major summit meeting since he’s come to office, Obama has heard complaints about the lack of U.S. leadership on the trade front.  This administration has demonstrated that it’s not afraid to tackle multiple, complex challenges at the same time — and yet they’ve been either mute or worse when it comes to trade. 

Barack Obama’s decision to put trade policy in a lockbox and throw away the key is utterly appalling — and, from a foreign policy perspective, completely counterproductive.