Nov 15, 2013 | 02:00 GMT

3 mins read

Washington's Pivot to Asia Disappoints Again

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The U.S. "pivot" to Asia has suffered another blow from domestic politics. In the House of Representatives, 151 Democrats wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama on Thursday urging him not to pursue fast-track authority for approving free trade agreements. Trade promotion authority would deny Congress the ability to amend international trade agreements negotiated by the executive branch when they are put to a vote. The executive's ability to speed trade agreements through the otherwise difficult ratification process expired in 2007, but the White House and congressional supporters are now attempting to reinstate it.

The White House wants to ease the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, better known as the TPP, a plan to allow the United States and 10 other Pacific Rim countries not only to trade goods with near-zero tariffs but also to deal more freely in services, investment, public projects and intellectual property by reducing non-tariff trade barriers. While Congress has managed over time to pass three trade agreements without the fast track (with Panama, Colombia and South Korea in 2011), the TPP nonetheless is so extensive and contentious that its negotiators fear congressional amendments could break promises with any of the 10 other members and halt the deal.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

The TPP has often been characterized as the commercial agenda of Washington's re-engagement with the Asia-Pacific region. The agreement excludes China while incorporating Japan, and it seeks to draw states like Malaysia and Vietnam further into the orbit of the U.S. economic system. But this characterization misses the point. The deal also excludes Washington's oldest allies in the region — Thailand and the Philippines — and both Chinese and U.S. officials have indicated a willingness to let China join. Washington's purpose was never to shut out China permanently but to make the rules so that China or any other country that wanted to join would have to play by them.

Recently the push to conclude the agreement by year's end has encountered several obstacles, even before Democrats split on the issue. Globally, it is a difficult time for politicians to make extraordinary concessions regarding their domestic economies. Volatility and uncertainty have made them reconsider yielding their prerogatives over government procurement, regulatory regimes and other levers that are especially useful for tightening their grip on power.

Indeed, powerful factions have risen up against the deal in every country, and just as the developed states have become more concerned that they will have to dilute the more aggressive elements of the deal in order to accommodate small players with heavy state involvement in their economies, so too have the smaller states become more doubtful over whether the big players will roll back their own state protections. As opposition has picked up, the United States has not been able to allay concerns — in October, the government shutdown forced Obama to cancel his trip to Indonesia, where he meant to sell the agreement to world leaders.

That is not to say the TPP is dead in the water; it still has a good chance of going through eventually after negotiators compromise on the ambitious original version. The United States wants to continue to tap into rapid Asian and Latin American growth, and it knows that it can drive a hard bargain with its trade partners on the basis of its vast consumer market. In some ways, the TPP reflects the broader problem with the narrative surrounding the U.S. pivot: The region is evolving, and the United States is updating its priorities accordingly, but there is not much more to it.

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