WASHINGTON – Critics have long predicted that President Barack Obama's policy to shift America's focus toward Asia is doomed. The legislative battle over his trade agenda could prove the acid test.
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Legislation to smooth the way for a free-trade pact with 11 other Asia-Pacific nations hit a wall in Congress last week. There could be a fresh vote in the House as early as Thursday to try to reverse that setback. Formidable obstacles remain — principally, opposition from Obama's fellow Democrats who believe trade deals cost American jobs.
The Obama administration itself has always presented the Trans-Pacific Partnership as crucial to its "pivot" toward the increasingly prosperous Asian region, after a post-9/11 preoccupation with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Officials have been at pains to point out the policy means more than ramping up America's military presence to counter rising power China.
But the administration was slow off the blocks in the politically prickly task of getting congressional support for "fast track" authority for the president to negotiate trade pacts that lawmakers can approve or reject but not amend. That's viewed as essential for winning eventual U.S. ratification for TPP.
The upshot is the current logjam in Congress. Obama and his legislative allies — which in this case are mostly Republicans — were consulting Wednesday to find a way a way through it.
While plans were yet to be finalized, officials said the House could have a stand-alone vote on fast track on Thursday. A package of aid for workers who lose their jobs because of imports would become part of a separate bill. The two measures were originally combined into one, to sweeten the deal for union-backed Democrats, who voted against it anyway last Friday.
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That political setback was greeted with anguish by Asia experts in Washington and former administration officials.
Larry Summers, a former director of the National Economic Council in the Obama White House, wrote that unless the trade legislation votes were successfully revisited, it would "doom" the TPP. "It would leave the grand strategy of rebalancing U.S. foreign policy toward Asia with no meaningful nonmilitary component," he said.
Obama, who was born in Hawaii and spent some of his childhood in Indonesia, has described himself as "America's first Pacific President." He took office believing that in no small measure, America's future is tied to Asia's, as the center of global economic growth has shifted eastward.
His grand strategy to elevate America's profile in the region has been welcomed both in Washington and in Asia, where China's assertive behavior in disputed maritime territories has unnerved its neighbors.
But skepticism has grown.
Preoccupation with crises in the Mideast, cuts to the U.S. aid and defense budgets, and domestic political woes have all been held out as reasons for Obama's signature foreign policy to fail. The pivot has variously been described by critical U.S.-based commentators as "defunct," suffering a "slow death," ''shrinking" or in need of a serious "rethink."
This time, however, the crisis of confidence is more acute in the Asia-Pacific itself.
Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb told Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Wednesday that TPP nations could be just one week's negotiation away from completing the agreement, but if fast track isn't resolved in the next two or three weeks, "I think we've got a real problem with the future of the TPP."
New Zealand Trade Negotiations Minister Tim Groser said the problems in Congress could stall the agreement until 2018.
Singapore's Foreign Minister K Shanmugam put the U.S. dilemma in broader but starker terms.
"Do you want to be part of the region or you want to be out of the region?" he told a Washington audience this week.
That said, not everyone is sold on the strategic necessity of the TPP for America in Asia.
Obama has cast TPP as an opportunity for the U.S., rather than China, to shape trade rules, by setting standards on labor, environment and intellectual property. China is starting to put its imprint on the world's financial architecture — long dominated by the U.S. — by establishing an Asian infrastructure bank this year.
But Chas Freeman, who was President Richard Nixon's main interpreter on his historic trip in 1972 to revive ties with communist China, wrote in a recent commentary that it was "fanciful" to present the new trade rules of the TPP as pivoting the U.S. into a lasting position of supremacy in China's backyard.
"China is now everybody's biggest trading partner, including America's prospective partners in TPP," Freeman wrote.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Pennington covers U.S.-Asian affairs for The Associated Press in Washington.