Shadow Government

Is Obama Really Coming Home From Asia Without Anything on the TPP?

Watching President Barack Obama’s grueling travel across Asia, I have to give some credit to the administration. But also wonder if they understand what is really at stake. First, the credit. It is no small thing for the Asia hands on the National Security Council (NSC) staff and at the State Department to convince the ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Watching President Barack Obama’s grueling travel across Asia, I have to give some credit to the administration. But also wonder if they understand what is really at stake.

First, the credit. It is no small thing for the Asia hands on the National Security Council (NSC) staff and at the State Department to convince the domestic political gurus in the White House to turn over a week of the presidential calendar for a string of photo ops in Asia that involve silly costumes and brain numbing announcements about trade facilitation agreements and visa wavers. President George W. Bush never missed an APEC Summit, and President Obama has only missed one, but Obama now has committed to attending two summits each year –APEC and the new East Asia Summit. In addition, his secretaries of State and Defense have excellent attendance records for the multilateral ASEAN Regional Forums and Shangri-La Dialogues, which focus on defense, as well as the bilateral sessions we have with Japan, Korea, Australia, and China. As Woody Allen said, showing up is nine tenths of success in life, and this is especially true in the ritualistic but highly nuanced and power-oriented diplomacy of Asia.

But I wonder if the administration really understands the power dynamics of the region. It is widely recognized on both sides of the Pacific that for Obama’s much trumpeted "pivot to Asia" to have any credibility, he has to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TPP is now stalled because of an impasse in U.S.-Japan negotiations. Part of that impasse is the fault of Japanese politics, but a big reason is the unwillingness of the White House to make any noticeable effort to pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). The Japanese and other trading partners are asking why they should put their best deal on the table with all the attendant political risk at home when the President and his senior advisors are not even willing to say the letters "T," "P," and "A" in public. From experience, they know that Bush, Clinton, and Bush had to lobby publicly and personally to get trade deals through the Congress — usually with TPA (or "fast track") going first. They now understand that this administration intends to move TPA and TPP in tandem, and assumed that the president was silent until now because of the midterms. Still, they expected that the president would work with Republican leadership after the election to get progress on these critical trade deals that both sides want. And they expected the president would be motivated by his party’s shellacking in the midterms to move on TPP as part of his post-election swing through Asia. Politics, legacy, and geostrategy all argued for visible movement on TPA and TPP this trip.

Instead, our Asian trading partners saw a president who used the trip to jam the Congress on climate change. The deal with China on climate change is impressive as aspirational policy and nobody in Asia will oppose it on the merits. China may or may not reach its targets, but it is good they have put them out there. Either way, there is absolutely nothing the United States can do about it. One thing that was demonstrated clearly, was that the president is going to work against, and not with, the Republicans. Perhaps the White House thought that was a foregone conclusion, but it will only deepen the impression in the region that the President cannot deliver at home. That puts TPP and the pivot at greater risk. One is left wondering if that bright shining message to the president’s base is how the domestic political gurus were convinced to let him go in the first place. Perhaps not all is lost, though. The president still has to go to Brisbane for the G20 summit and will deliver a major speech on Asia the last day of his trip. It will be watched with great interest.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @JapanChair. Twitter: @JapanChair

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