WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s Asia policy took a hit this week, and it came from a member of his own party.
The top Democratic senator, Harry Reid, announced that he opposes legislation that’s key for a trans-Pacific trade pact that is arguably the most important part of Obama’s effort to strengthen American engagement in Asia.
Since Obama rolled out the policy, most attention has been on the military aspect, largely because it was described as a rebalance in U.S. priorities after a decade of costly war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But officials have increasingly stressed that Obama’s foreign policy “pivot” to Asia is about more than cementing America’s stature as the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific as China grows in strength. It’s about capitalizing on the region’s rapid economic growth.
That’s the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, an ambitious free trade agreement being negotiated by 12 nations, including Japan, that account for some 40 percent of global gross domestic product.
“The pivot is the TPP right now,” Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, told a conference at a Washington think tank this week on U.S. policy and the outlook for Asia in 2014.
The problem for Obama is that Congress needs to approve so-called fast track negotiating authority to move TPP along. Many of his fellow Democrats are against fast-track authority, which would require Congress to act on the trade deals negotiated by the administration by a yes-or-no vote, without the ability to make any changes.
In a bitterly divided Washington, Obama’s in the rare position of having more support for a key policy among his political rivals, the Republicans, than from his own party.
Reid, the Senate majority leader, said Wednesday that he opposed fast-track authority and that lawmakers should not push for it now — a comment suggesting that legislation introduced three weeks ago will go nowhere soon.
The Obama administration’s Asia policy has been welcomed by countries wary of China’s rise and expansive territorial claims. During the president’s first term, the U.S. made progress in strengthening old alliances with nations like the Philippines, forging deeper ties with Indonesia and Vietnam and befriending former pariah state Myanmar.
There were missteps. Angry politics at home forced Obama to withdraw from the East Asia Summit last fall, raising some questions about his commitment to the region. New military deployments in the Asia-Pacific — a few hundred Marines in Australia, new warships rotated through Singapore — have fueled Chinese accusations of a U.S. policy of containment while making little impact on regional security.
Asia got little mention in Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday, adding to perceptions in some quarters that the pivot has dropped in the administration’s policy agenda in the president’s second term.
But he did urge both parties in Congress to approve fast-track legislation needed to make the TPP and a trade deal under negotiation with Europe a reality, saying it would open new markets and create American jobs.
While that legislation is co-sponsored by a senior Democrat — Obama’s nominee to become the next ambassador to China, Sen. Max Baucus — many in the party join with labor unions in opposing lowered trade barriers, which they worry will cost jobs due to increased competition.
But top Republicans who want fast-track authority accuse the administration of failing to do its part to mobilize support for it among Democrats in Congress — a task that will be complicated by the midterm elections in November. Lawmakers will be careful to avoid measures that could hurt their prospects of re-election.
In an emailed comment Friday, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman remained upbeat about the TPP, saying that momentum developed to advance the TPP talks in 2013 is carrying over to 2014. He said the administration is working closely with Congress and is committed to bringing home a deal “worthy of broad support from the American people and their representatives in Congress.”
Ambassadors of Japan and Vietnam both say they want TPP negotiations to be completed before Obama visits Asia in April.
Japan’s Kenichiro Sasae told the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week that fast-track authority is needed because there are worries the U.S. would seek changes to the agreement. He also acknowledged challenges remain on auto and agricultural products between the biggest players in the TPP, the Japan and the U.S.
The good news for Washington was that the Japanese and Vietnamese envoys remained strongly supportive of the U.S. role in Asia, viewing it as a stabilizing influence in region beset by territorial disputes. Those tensions have heightened fears of a conflict, as China stakes its claims to contested islands in the East and South China Seas.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that from the president on down, the United States “could not be more committed to our relationship with Asia.” Despite U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s deep involvement in high-stakes Mideast diplomacy, this month he will make his fifth trip to the region since taking office a year ago.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Matthew Pennington covers U.S.-Asian affairs for The Associated Press in Washington.