Obama to offer more talk than action on Asian trade | Connect Asia

Obama to offer more talk than action on Asian trade

Obama to offer more talk than action on Asian trade

Posted 13 November 2009, 14:04 AEST

The APEC summit marks US President Barack Obama's first presidential visit to Asia, covering Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea in eight days.

President Obama's expected to emphasise the partnership with Asia on issues like economic growth, security and climate change.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Evan Feigenbaum co-author of 'The United States in the New Asia' and senior fellow for East, Central and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC

FEIGENBAUM: The United States is a Pacific power. It has been for over a century and a half by virtue of geography, history, its vital strategic interests, but especially its economic interests. But I think in the first instance the president will be looking to reaffirm some of the fundamentals that have really underpinned the American presence in Asia and that means in the first place our alliances and that is why he is going to Tokyo and to Seoul, but also to try and talk about partnerships in Asia, whether it is with its allies or with China, not just in their regional dimension, but increasingly in terms of their global dimension. Those alliances in particular were forged in the Cold War, but alliances cannot just be against something, they need to be for something, so I think in a sense the president will be looking to redefine these relationships in an affirmative direction to try to articulate a vision going forward and to reaffirm as I said the fundamentals of the American role in the region.

LAM: Do you think in a way to that he might have to make up for lost time for the neglect under the previous Bush administration?

FEIGENBAUM: Well may be because I worked in the Bush administration, but I would categorically reject the idea that there was neglect under the Bush administration. President Bush left office with I think a pretty robust record in Asia, whether it was transforming the US-India relationship, or it was a strong relationship with China. But the most important thing I think to emphasise is that there has really been continuity and bipartisan continuity in US relations with Asia for decades now. You look at something like China policy, where eight administrations since President Nixon have basically had the same approach. President Bush in a very robust trade policy whether it was the free trade agreement with Australia or with Singapore and even with ASEAN where its true and I have to give the administration of President Obama a lot of credit for signing the Treaty of Amnity and Cooperation. I wish the Bush administration had done that.

LAM: I was going to say, because don't you get the sense that under the two successive Bush administrations, there was a sense of the US watching on the sidelines if you like rather than being an active participant in the region?

FEIGENBAUM: Well, not really. I mean it's true that Secretary Rice missed an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, but the United States now works with ASEAN through our technical cooperation plan announced in 2002, through a training facility established in the ASEAN Secretariat in 2004 and an enhanced partnership agreement from 2005, a plan of action from 2006 and a trade and investment framework from 2006. So it is terrific signing the TAC and it's terrific the new strategic partnership that I think is emerging with Indonesia, which is the Obama administrations recognition of Indonesia's weight in the G20 and beyond. But I think continuity in American policy is a good thing. It is reassuring to our Asian friends and I think that's part of what the president is building.

LAM: The centrepiece of his trip of course is APEC in Singapore. Will President Obama be taking any fresh initiative to foster Asia-Pacific trade?

FEIGENBAUM: Well, I think really that is one of the handicaps the president is facing and it's partly because trade issues are so contentious in the United States, but particularly within the president's own party. I think a lot of what we are going to hear from the president is about the administrations commitment to free trade, but we need to note that the Korea-US free trade agreement has stalled here in Washington at a time when Korea is not standing still. They are moving out with Europe, agreement with India, the trans Pacific partnership here is stalled, but above all, there is the question of the Doha, because I think the United States would be right to worry about infa-regional preferences that really put US bonds at a disadvantage over the long term and from an American perspective, the best way to erase those would be by concluding a global round and so I think there will be a lot of pressure from President Obama from Asians to articulate a vision of trade that really puts the United States squarely into the middle of the economic agenda that is changing the landscape in Asia.

LAM: Well, Singapore is part of ASEAN and ASEAN is all about trade. So without taking anything concrete in trade terms, do you think the visit is perhaps without substance?

FEIGENBAUM: Eh no, I think there will be substance, but I think that is the biggest challenge to the president. Because frankly, despite the continuity in the reaffirmations of the longstanding US role in the region, the region is changing and its really changing out from under him and the way it's changing most of all I think is the growing intergration of the region, especially economically and financially. And there, I just think some of that is natural. Americans can hardly object to Asian trade agreements while it pursues North American free trade agreements. But to the extent that the United States does not lead with a robust agenda of trade in Asia, it will find itself and its company with a very signficant competitive disadvantage and so I think that is where the president really needs to find ways to articulate a way forward on trade

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