By Ernie Bower, Senior Adviser & Director, Southeast Asia Program, CSIS
President Obama’s second trip to Asia as President was important, well-timed and successful in terms of political and security issues. However, on the issues prioritized by Asian partners and the American public – namely a common desire to see the U.S. economy back on track and in an undeniable recovery, the President’s message was by definition on shaky ground.
President Obama sought to send the message that he gets it — that trade is fundamental to a sustained and strong U.S. economic recovery and the creation of new American jobs. However, as his visit to Korea demonstrated, he is not yet in control of the key domestic levers on trade. His team was not prepared to deliver the commitment the White House made to have the KORUS done before he was wheels up from Seoul., Unfortunately, the KORUS is the fundamental test for whether the U.S. and President Obama are ready to take the lead on trade. Without KORUS, the president’s APEC talking points about the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and a Free Trade Agreement for the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) weren’t credible, and left Asia wondering whether he can deliver the goods on trade and economic recovery.
Ironically, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip was perceived as enormously successful, perhaps even earning her a legacy as the secretary of state who established a new level of U.S. engagement in Asia. Clinton proved adept at harvesting the considerable security and political advances that the Administration has achieved in the region, from re-connecting with ASEAN to joining the East Asia Summit to helping drive the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus defense cooperation thrust. With Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the lead, the U.S. is perceived by Southeast Asian partners and others as perfectly stepping into its role as a lead player in the region.
The missing part of that strategy is trade, however, and President Obama has to shoulder the responsibility for not having that calculus worked out yet. Look for him to be highly motivated to focus on getting it right when he returns to Washington, D.C.
Obama’s visits to India and Indonesia were very well done. His tone and approach significantly advanced U.S. interests. Those stops were strategic and should be seen as part of an effective new American charm offensive in Asia. However, when it came to economics and trade in Korea with the KORUS and G20 and Japan for the APEC Leaders Summit, the president looked relatively weak.