The cancellation of President Obama’s attendance at various international trade summits this week in South East Asia cedes economic and political influence in the region to the Chinese government. Mr. Obama should have prioritized the advancement of US trade interests rather than tending to the theatrical volleying and budgetary tug-of-war recently incited by House Republicans in Washington.
One of the primary goals of the President’s tour, notes Jane Perlez in a recent New York Times article, was to influence “those Asian countries that Washington had invited to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade act into finishing negotiations by the end of the year.”
On Nov. 12, 2011, the leaders of the nine TPP countries—Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States—announced an agreement on the broad outlines of an ambitious 21st century agreement that will enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries, promoting innovation, economic growth and development, and supporting the creation and retention of jobs.
The Obama administration has not invited China to join this 12-member group. China views the trade agreement as a tool to contain them. The Chinese are wise to see it this way, because a TPP agreement would indeed function as such a restraint.
The TPP, if negotiated successfully, could become a central component of US containment strategy towards Chinese expansion. The US economy, in terms of GDP, is larger than all of the proposed member TPP countries’ economies combined. The TPP feels less like a tool for advancing US economic interests than a tool for constraining Chinese economic interests. The TPP could dampen Chinese economic influence in the East and throughout the world.
By not attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, which begins on the Indonesian island of Bali this Monday, and by not participating in the East Asia Summit in Brunei this Wednesday, President Obama has surrendered influence in South East Asia to Chinese president Mr. Xi Jin Ping.
“Without Mr. Obama in Bali,” notes Perlez, “Mr. Xi will be able to push an alternate trade grouping, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which embraces a broader set of Asian countries than the Pacific Partnership. The United States is not included.” The possibility of a Chinese-led alternate trade group threatens US trade interests.
Secretary of State John Kerry will attend the conferences in the President’s stead. But Secretary Kerry will clearly stand out as a stand-in for the President and will not be able to project the same level of influence at the summits that the President is capable of. The Obama Administration should have prioritized the strategic implications of successfully negotiating the TPP agreement over mediating internal discord in Washington.
Analysts warned last week that if the President were to have gone through with his planned Asian tour, he would’ve seemed neglectful of tending to growing internal dysfunction in Congress. However, it is crucial for our nation’s long-term interests that the President be vigilantly organizing the constellation of countries involved in the TPP in order to counterbalance Chinese influence and expansion. The TPP could serve as a central component of US foreign policy towards the blind, growth-oriented, and expansionary policies of the Chinese government’s offensive realism.
The President’s cancellation of his visits is a knee jerk, a politically correct reaction to an imagined public perception. Mr. Obama’s calculus is that he would have been reprimanded and admonished for fleeing the country during a period of intense congressional tumult and federal paralysis.
“With government employees on unpaid leave, Obama cannot afford to leave Washington and be seen hob-nobbing with world leaders on a tropical island,” says Ian Storey, senior fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The point is well taken.
However, the narrative of the dysfunction between the 112th Congress and Mr. Obama is well documented and established in the general American and international mind. The President’s loss or victory over budgetary priorities won’t change the defining character of his presidency–a tense and tiring relationship with stalwart congressional Republicans.
The federal government has shut down in a similar fashion to the current situation 17 times since 1976. An irate Republican congressional majority is currently leveraging close to one third of the House appropriated budget in a hostile takeover in order to undermine the President’s proposed budget and the popularity of the Affordable Care Act, presumably in an attempt to ultimately dismantle and/or significantly adjust the legislation.
However, payroll for the approximately 800,000 furloughed federal employees, which was temporarily curtailed during the early stages of the shutdown, has since been retroactively guaranteed by Congress. The shutdown is too detrimental to both parties to continue for much longer. The federal shutdown has been thoroughly sensationalized by the media, as expected. This sensationalism has compelled the President to maintain his domestic image even if it comes to the detriment of future US trade relations.
Mr. Obama should be focused on wielding his iconic, international diplomatic reputation in order to expand US trade relations in response to expanding Chinese trade relations, and compete for global market share against a ‘rising China.’
“While his decision is perfectly understandable,” notes Storey, “it projects a poor image of America as a country that is politically dysfunctional and on the verge of another economic crisis.” International politics are certainly about broad perceptions. Budgetary battles and victories at home will not significantly change the trajectory of American life in comparison to the negotiation of strong international trade alliances, the implications of which will structure the future orientation of the domestic American industrial and service economies.
The White House has said that it “looks forward to working with Asian allies and returning to the region at a later date,” but this isn’t good enough. With Mr. Obama not in attendance, “cash-rich and self-confident China will have the floor to itself,” says Storey. This is why the President should have gone through with his Asian tour. The negotiation of international trade agreements is infrequent and has the ability to affect the international balance of power. If dampening the influence of a ‘rising China’ is still a top American foreign policy priority, which it certainly is, then the President has made crucial mistake in not attending the various meetings he was committed to attending.
With the President’s withdrawal from the tour, the American “pivot” toward developing its influence in the East was undercut, leaving regional allies wary of the US’s standing as a countervailing economic and political force to a rising China. As Steve Holland and James Pomfret suggest in a recent article for Reuters, “analysts said the no-show by the U.S. president would work to China’s advantage.”