In his final address to the UN General Assembly annual session in New York on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama failed to list among his legacies what should have been the crowning glory of his presidency — Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), the mother of all trade deals covering 40 percent of the world’s GDP.
Does it mean this extraordinary statesman is walking out of the world arena with nothing to show by way of a historic Asian legacy?
Obviously, Obama is unsure which way the wind is blowing. TPP’s fate hangs in the balance. What ought to have been another platinum grade trade deal, trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, just capsized, hitting the rock of popular opposition in Europe.
The TPP can meet a similar fate, hitting an American iceberg. The populist mood in America regarding trade deals has become unfriendly, given their dubious reputation for creating wealth for corporate industry while taking away jobs.
Donald Trump pledges to scupper the TPP, while Hillary Clinton succumbs to populist politics and intends to renegotiate the terms of the deal to make it more agreeable to American interests. Of course, Obama himself, famous for his audacity of hope, is escalating the struggle to get congressional passage for the TPP.
On Friday, he took a meeting of TPP supporters drawn from Republicans and Democrats, business leaders, governors and mayors, national security figures and military leaders to send the message that the trade deal is important not only for the US economy but also “for our national security and our standing in the world.”
The emergent salience is that the TPP, which so far was touted as a flag carrier of free trade values, is being acknowledged, finally, for what it is — a strategic and geopolitical drive to contain China.
Some Asian allies traveled to Washington to canvass support for the TPP among America’s political class and opinion makers — Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. They stressed that TPP forms part of the US’ pivot to Asia and aims at making China subordinate to American interests.
Test of credibility
They conceded that the great game is about maintaining US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned that the success or failure of the TPP will “sway the direction of … strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific”.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that ratification of the TPP by the US Congress will be regarded in the region as a “test for your credibility and seriousness of purpose.” The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saw TPP to be as powerful as “ships and planes” for exerting US influence in the Asia-Pacific.
But doubt is growing in the Asia-Pacific as to whether TPP will see the light of day. Nothing else can explain the last-minute rethink in Hanoi to shelve the ratification of TPP at the forthcoming session of Vietnamese parliament. (TPP negotiations were finalized in October and must be ratified by all 12 signatories within the next two years.)
The Chairman of the Vietnamese Parliament Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan noted that the decision to defer ratification has been taken in view of needs to examine the global situation, assess actions of the other country members and wait for the result of the US presidential election.
Hanoi’s decision comes in the downstream of the recent six-day visit to China by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (who succeeded the famously ‘pro-West’ Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung), which has raised hopes of a qualitatively new level of mutual trust and confidence in Sino-Vietnamese relations.
To be sure, the regional security setting has become highly fluid, which in turn buffets the US’ overall standing in Asia. Obama’s final Asian tour last month didn’t go well.
While the G-20 summit in Hangzhou ended up as an assertive Chinese narrative, the ASEAN summits that followed were a setback for US diplomacy to drum up public show of resistance to China in the South China Sea disputes.
The mercurial Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has since ended joint patrols with the US in the South China Sea, opened Track II to Beijing, invited Chinese trade and investments (and even arms supplies), demanded the pull-out of US Special Forces in Mindanao, and is voicing his country’s “independent foreign policies”.
The Manila Times newspaper disclosed on Tuesday that the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations sent a mission to China for a series of dialogues from September 13 to 15, comprising retired ambassadors, military officials, businessmen and academics, to supplement Duterte’s Track I initiative such as the appointment of former President Fidel Ramos as special envoy to China.
Bumps along the road
While in Beijing, the Track II delegation called on Liu Zhenmin, vice-minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ambassador Wu Hailong, president of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, among others.
Liu was cited expressing the hope that “Philippines can meet China halfway, handle the dispute appropriately, and place relations back on track through dialogue, consultations and cooperation.”
Liu cautioned Manila that there are bound to be “bumps along the road to reconciliation due to vested economic, not to mention third-country interests, which may be at work to try to derail the process toward reconciliation.”
Evidently, the ground beneath the feet of the US’ rebalance is dramatically shifting. An opinion piece in the Financial Times newspaper on Monday caught the somber mood:
Throughout the Obama years, the US has attempted to reassure all its Asian allies that America has both the means and the will to remain the dominant military power in the Asia-Pacific … But Mr. Duterte has now directly challenged the idea … If others take his view, power could drain away from Washington … The sense that America’s ‘pivot’ to Asia is in trouble is compounded by the growing doubts about the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership … Unfortunately, long-term strategic thinking is almost impossible in the current maelstrom of American politics. As a result, President Obama faces the sad prospect of leaving office with his signature foreign-policy initiative — the pivot to Asia — sinking beneath the Pacific waves.
In the unkindest cut of all, Duterte stated recently: “China is now in power and they have military superiority in the region.” Factually, it is incorrect to say so. Don’t Americans have 11 aircraft carriers, while China has only one?
But then, three-quarters of the great game has always been about perceptions, and the growing perception in Asia is that the American aircraft carriers are potentially very vulnerable.
This is where the 8-day long China-Russia naval exercises in the South China Sea, which concluded on Monday, would have a multiplier effect. The grand finale of the exercises was a spectacular amphibious and air landing operation on an island off the coast of China’s southern Guangdong province, which the region watched with riveting attention.
The challenging drill was carried out in near-live combat situation with the Russian and Chinese navies indulging in barely-concealed military posturing that demonstrated their common interest to support each other and push back at the US.
Shortly before the drills, Russian President Vladimir Putin also introduced a game changer, expressing support for China’s position in relation to the international arbitration tribunal’s verdict on South China Sea. He made it a point to speak from Hangzhou, on Chinese soil.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.