Half Pivot

posted by
on March 27, 2013

 

Let’s cast a gimlet eye on President Barack Obama’s “pivot” toward Asia.

Viewed from important Asian capital cities — Tokyo and Bangkok, Manila and Hanoi, Dacca and Phnom Penh, also Jakarta —the pivot is looking more like a half-pivot. The first half involves U.S. security ties to Asia. The Pacific Command — with its U.S. Seventh Fleet, the Fifth Air Force, and its Special Operations Forces — has been keeping the Pacific, well, pacific, for more than a half-century. In that sense, there is nothing especially new to the Obama pivot, except perhaps the spin. But give the White House credit for supporting officials in the State Department and the Pentagon, as they have been tending to America’s traditional diplomatic and security relationships.

But the same White House has failed to connect U.S. trade policies to the political-military part of the pivot. A search for a coherent U.S. trade policy for the region turns up a series of unconnected ad hoc policies. To the extent there is a common thread, it involves Washington’s familiar double standard. The White House demands that U.S. trading partners summon the political will to open their markets to American exports. But when the foreigners ask for enhanced access to U.S. markets, a tone-deaf Washington barely listens. While this is certainly not a game that Obama invented, it’s fair to say that on his watch, U.S. trading partners are no longer much interested in dancing to the superpower’s tune.

That’s sure not the way the White House wants its Asian policies to be perceived. In a speech to the Asia Society delivered in New York on March 11, Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, asserted that the pivot — which he preferred to call a “rebalancing” — has been fostering enhanced U.S. security and economic ties with Asia. The next day in Washington, Obama reiterated his administration’s claims that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations — the centerpiece of his trade policies in Asia — involves defining new “high standards” that will modernize international trade and “generate billions of dollars in trade and millions of jobs” in the 21st Century.

But as our mini-tour of key Asian capitals helps illuminate, the U.S. rhetoric appears at variance with economic facts on the ground. Already, the consequences of shortsighted U.S. trade policies that provide incentives for Asian trading partners to leave Uncle Sam on the sidelines are showing up.

Thailand, for instance, is a longtime U.S. security ally. But the White House has not worked seriously to welcome the Thais into the Trans-Pacific Partnership preferential trade negotiations. As presently constituted, a successful TPP would divert trade flows away from important Asian countries like Thailand.

When Obama met with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok on Nov. 18, 2012, Yingluck’s declared interest in joining the TPP talks wasn’t even on the agenda, the Thai leader told reporters in Bangkok. In a Nov. 19 joint press release with Yingluck, Obama said that “we’ll work together as Thailand begins to lay the groundwork for joining high-standard trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” Translation from the diplomatic politesse: it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s business community is divided on the wisdom of strengthening trade ties with America anyway. The Thais already have cut their own preferential trade accords with China and New Zealand, and are also working to liberalize regional trade within Asean.

In the absence of meaningful TPP talks with the Americans, Yingluck has now decided instead to negotiate another Thai trade deal with the more reliable European Union. So have the Japanese.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pressing a reluctant Obama White House to stop blocking his country’s entry into the TPP negotiations. Meanwhile, Abe is also talking to the Chinese and South Koreans about creating a three-way Seoul-Beijing-Tokyo trade axis.

Next stop: Tokyo.

The “chicken tariff” does Tokyo

On the security front, the good news is that U.S.-Japanese ties remain solid. And the importance of the U.S.-Japanese security alliance should never be underestimated. There is no more important military alliance for either country. The U.S.-Japan alliance has been marked with new energy on the Obama watch, thanks to mutual concerns over contentious Chinese-Japanese maritime disputes over islets in the East China Sea that, while uninhabited, are rich in fish and potentially so for oil and gas. Give the Obama White House credit for understanding the importance.

But for more than two years, Obama and his top international economic policy aide, Mike Froman — the man who has been doing the most to set U.S. trade policies — have been cool to Japanese participation in the TPP.  One would think the White House would have been eager to welcome Japanese participation. After all, without Japan — the world’s third largest economy — the TPP is small ball. While readers will have seen various breathless press accounts that tout the TPP as a “blockbuster” of a trade deal, it is far from that.

The US already has preferential trade deals with Singapore, Australia, Chile, Canada, and Mexico. Nor is the White House eager to liberalize those accords in the TPP negotiations (such as opening the door to increased imports of Australian sugar, a subject which the Americans have so far refused even to discuss). The remaining TPP negotiating partners are four smaller, if admirable, economies: Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and New Zealand. Is that what a “blockbuster” of a trade deal looks like? China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan — they all have, or are discussing, preferential trade arrangements with the entire Association of Southeast Nations.

Consider one of the most important reasons for the White House reluctance to welcome America’s most important Pacific ally into the TPP. This has nothing to do with so-called cutting edge, gold standard, state-of-the-art 21st Century trade rules. It’s all about old-fashioned tariffs. And one protectionist tariff in particular illustrates the White House focus.

Enter the Detroit auto lobby. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler fear they would lose domestic market share to the Japanese in a TPP deal that would get rid of the U.S. 25 percent tariff on imported trucks. Defending that tariff — mainly with Japan, but also regarding Thailand, where foreign auto transplants have set up shop —has become a top White House priority.

The problem is that there has never been any economic justification whatsoever for the 25 percent U.S. tariff on trucks. That tariff dates to late 1963 and a decision made during an unrelated trade spat of that era by President Lyndon Johnson (when Barack Obama was barely two years old).

Angry that the Europeans weren’t buying enough American chickens, Johnson retaliated by imposing the 25 percent tariff rate on trucks — a tenfold increase from the normal 2.5 percent U.S. tariffs on cars. The so-called “chicken tariff” was aimed at punishing Germany’s then-popular exports of the hippie-era vans. To repeat: to this day, nobody in the United States government has ever pretended that the chicken tariff had any economic merits.

Moreover, the protectionist truck tax has “worked” over the decades much as the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has succeeded in ousting the Castro brothers. Toyota and other Japanese automakers — who weren’t competitive threats during Lyndon Johnson’s time — simply have gotten around the tariff by producing their trucks in U.S. states like Texas, where tariffs can’t be applied. Detroit and the United Autoworkers remain furious that the Japanese have created a non-unionized (and well-paid) segment of the “American” auto industry. Obama now has become the eighth American president after Johnson to defend the economically indefensible tariff.

But wait, it gets worse. For another example of how shortsighted auto policies risk Uncle Sam’s increasing marginalization, let’s head to Jakarta.

Indonesia: driving on without the Americans

Indonesia, where Obama lived for several years as a youngster, was supposed to be the beneficiary of enhanced Washington-Jakarta trade ties. Nobody’s talking like that now. Obama has shown no interest in including Southeast Asia’s biggest economy in the TPP. Nor have the Indonesians — who have recently fallen into the trap of economic nationalism — indicated they much care what the Americans think.

Channel NewsAsia, a Singapore-based television news organization that is widely watched throughout the region (and beyond, thanks to channelnewsasia.com); reported on March 17 that Indonesia hits imported autos with a 40 percent tariff. Yet Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Daihatsu “supply around 95 percent of Indonesia’s car market,” the report noted. No wonder. Japanese auto imports, thanks to a preferential trade deal Japan has with Indonesia, are duty free.

The rightly concerned European Union is talking with the Indonesians about a preferential trade deal with the Indonesians “to allow European firms to compete on a level playing field” there, the report added.

ASEAN is also busy negotiating new trade rules that will facilitate the auto trade across Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, the Obama White House, having put all of its negotiating chips in the TPP basket, is left on the outside. China, which has already cut its own preferential trade deal with ASEAN — as well as Australia and New Zealand — is well-positioned to further deepen trade ties with Indonesia also.

Next stop: Manila — to see more missed American trade-policy opportunities to be generous to an old friend.

The next Asian tiger

Perched along key Pacific trading routes, the Philippines — population approaching 100 million, the world’s third largest English-speaking populace — is rich in what economists call “human capital.” So relations with Manila would be important to any American president, even if the former U.S. colony weren’t one of America’s oldest treaty allies.

To its credit, the Obama White House has encouraged the Pentagon and the State Department to strengthen existing political-military relations with the government of President Benigno Aquino III, who was elected in 2010. Dubious Chinese claims to parts of the South China Sea that are clearly within Philippine waters have also underscored the continued importance of close U.S.-Philippine security ties. (Policy paralysis is not only an American disease, to be sure. One wonders if China’s new leadership appreciates the fact that Beijing’s clumsy maritime provocations would remind any Philippine government of the importance in sticking close with their historic friends the Americans.)

Once Asia’s second-largest economy, after only Japan, for most of the last half century the Philippines — mired in cancerous corruption and inward-looking economically — has conspicuously lagged behind its neighbors. But now, Aquino has gotten his country on the move, sparked by a crackdown on corruption that former U.S. diplomat John Forbes admiringly calls “truly unprecedented in scope.”

(Forbes is the principal author of Arangkada, a publication of the Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines (www.arangkada.com). Arangkada, which means “move twice as fast” in Tagalog, is full of solid economic prescriptions for what the former “sick man” of Asia can do to become economically healthy again.)

Indeed, under Aquino’s leadership, the Philippines has come out of intensive care.

Philippine GDP growth last year was 6.6 percent and is projected to top 7 percent this year — the highest in Southeast Asia. Construction cranes dot Manila’s skyline. The area just north of Manila that once housed major U.S. military bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay is booming. Clark International Airport — where more birds used to land than airplanes just a few years ago— has taken off, with passenger arrivals skyrocketing from 50,000 in 2004 to 1.3 million last year. Korea’s Asiana, Malaysia’s Air Asia, Hong Kong’s Dragonair, are flying passengers to the Philippines from all over Asia. Emirates will launch daily flights from Clark to Dubai later this year. For anyone looking at the beneficial advantages that happen when foreign investments that foster Philippine economic growth are welcomed, this is it.

Indeed, the former American bases have become models of the benefits of attracting foreign investment. Yokohama Tires and Texas Instruments have billion-plus dollar investments at Clark; Samsung also has an important semiconductor operation there. Korea’s Hanshin has the world’s fourth-largest shipyard at Subic Bay. In their Cold-War heyday, the former U.S. bases employed perhaps 40,000 Filipinos. Now, under Philippine management, the number of jobs in Clark-Subic corridor has shot up more than fourfold — more than 160,000. I don’t think there has been a better time for the Philippines than today,” says Dennis Wright, a dynamic former U.S. Navy captain who is now developing a $3 billion industrial park at the former Clark Field for a group of Kuwaiti investors.

Aquino, as mandated by the Philippine constitution, has one six-year term that will expire in 2016. Now is the time, the reformers stress, for urgency in locking in as many reforms as possible. After 2016, Aquino’s successor could well be another politician mainly interested in lining his (or her) own pockets.

Here’s where the half-pivot part comes in. While the White House has supported enhanced U.S.-Philippine security ties, Washington has not put serious energy into deepening trade ties.

The Obama administration has not welcomed the Philippines into the TPP negotiations. The European Union is interested in negotiating a preferential trade agreement with the Philippines; the White House is not. Washington has no present plans to engage Manila seriously to promote trade liberalization anytime before 2016, when neither Obama nor Aquino will be in office.

The Filipinos have noticed. Last September, speaking to an influential audience in Washington that was convened by the U.S.-Philippines Society and the respected Center for Strategic and International Studies, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima lamented that his country was not wanted in the TPP. That trade deal as presently constituted, including some Asian countries and ignoring others, the secretary explained, would distort regional trade flows and thus “hinder” the laudable goal of promoting genuine trade expansion.

Meanwhile, where the Philippines is concerned, the USTR is in full “enforcement” mode.

On March 28, the USTR’s trade police will preside over a hearing into complaints of labor-rights abuses from 2001– 2007 that were perpetrated on former President Gloria Arroyo’s watch — murders of union organizers, and such. The implied threat is that if President Obama personally determines that Aquino has not been diligent enough by way of cleaning up the mess he inherited, Obama could yank the Philippines’ duty-free privileges pursuant to the Generalized System of Preferences program.

That would, of course, be ridiculous. After all, Aquino has put Arroyo — who never lost her GSP privileges when she ran the Philippines — under house arrest while she faces graft charges. Aquino’s labor secretary, Rosalinda Baldoz, is widely respected for her integrity and dedication in addressing the Arroyo-era abuses. Nobody, either at the USTR, or with the International Labor Rights Forum, which filed the original complaint, wants or expects Obama to humiliate Aquino. The Philippines has been “making progress” on labor-rights,” notes Jeff Johnson, who heads the International Labor Organization’s Manila office.

Why would the USTR be holding such a hearing that by its nature is demeaning to an important American ally? While it’s tempting to blame the bureaucrats, the trade cops are essentially playing out their intended roles of “enforcement” oversight that Congress mandated in the GSP legislation. Countries like the Philippines that sign up for the GSP program must agree to submit themselves to such oversight from Washington, notwithstanding the indignities. That’s one of the main reasons why the U.S. Congress likes the GSP program — there is always an implicit understanding that economic privileges granted, can also be taken away. And no American president has ever complained that the generous GSP program is also a diplomatic lever that can always be pulled, if necessary to keep allies in line.

The GSP program isn’t particularly generous to the Philippines anyway. To cite just one example: Philippine canned tuna exports are not eligible for the duty-free treatment, as they are politically “sensitive.” The sensitivity involves American Samoa, which is an American territory.

Official U.S. policy has long discriminated against Asian tuna exporters like the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia. The Asian tuna exporting countries face protective U.S. tariffs of up to 12 percent. But American Samoa, because it is officially U.S. territory, can export its canned tuna to the U.S. mainland duty free. Without the protective tariffs, the Samoans could not compete. (For further details, see: Charlie the Tuna’s Troubles in Pago Pago, July 12, 2010, posted on www.rushfordreport.com).

Obama inherited the economically indefensible U.S. tuna tariffs from his predecessor, George W. Bush, who inherited them from his predecessors.  Bush rebuffed Gloria Arroyo when she sought their removal. It’s safe to say that Obama will also kick the tuna-tariff can down the road.

Onto Dacca, Phnom Penh, and Hanoi

Speaking of unjust American tariff barriers that U.S. presidents have passed along to their successors, who defend them more or less automatically, let’s head to the final three Asian stops, beginning with Dacca.

Bangladesh will also be in the dock at tomorrow’s USTR enforcement hearing. Unlike the Philippines, Obama really is considering yanking Dacca’s GSP preferences. And no wonder, considering Bangladesh’s dismal record over the years of cracking down on human rights abuses in its garment industry. The latest tragedy happened just last November, when at least 112 clothing workers were killed in a factory fire that should never have been allowed to happen.

But hold on. Garments and footwear are not eligible for duty-free treatment in the GSP program, anyway. (That decision that dates to President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, who framed the original political blueprint for GSP in the 1970s. Nixon and Kissinger faced a U.S. textile lobby that had considerable political clout in those days. Now Obama has the old protectionism still running on autopilot — even though very few items of clothing and footwear are still made in the U.S. and the diminished U.S. textile lobby no longer has the votes to defeat important trade legislation.

As viewed by developing countries that have women who want to sew their way out of poverty, the high U.S. tariffs — hovering generally around 12 percent, but which can be more than twice that for some items — are cruel.

Bangladesh’s exports to the U.S. totaled $4.9 billion last year. Of that, $4.4 billion was clothing, and thus not eligible for GSP. Put another way, 91 percent of what Bangladesh sells to the United States is excluded from the GSP’s duty-free privileges, notes Washington trade analyst Edward Gresser. “This not particularly generous,” he observes.

Gresser further points out that while U.S. tariffs hit poorer countries’ exports of clothing and footwear hard, the higher-end products that wealthy European countries sell to the United States — airplanes, electronics, automobiles and such (except for trucks) — face low tariffs. Last year, for example, Cambodia and Bangladesh exported $7.6 billion in goods to the United States, mostly clothing. These exports faced U.S. tariffs of 16.9 percent and 15 percent, respectively. U.S. Customs collected combined Cambodian and Bangladeshi tariffs amounting to $1.1 billion. German exports to the U.S. totaled $96 billion, and were taxed at only 1.4 percent — amounting to just $1.4 billion. This is “unfair” to two of the world’s most impoverished countries, Gresser reasons. No comment from the White House.

Does it make sense for Obama to take away Bangladesh’s GSP benefits when more than 90 percent of that country’s exports to the U.S. aren’t in the GSP program? Ask the Cambodians about such things.

When Bill Clinton was president, Cambodia agreed with the demands brought by U.S. organized labor to open its sweatshops to international labor inspections. It worked. Today, the International Labor Organization, through its Better Factories Cambodia program (www.betterfactories.org) conducts vigorous and effective oversight of that country’s garment industry.

Yet even though the Cambodians have done everything they could to meet the demands of the AFL-CIO, neither Obama nor his predecessors since Clinton, has been willing to give Cambodian clothing and footwear exports duty-free treatment. The Obama White House — now in its fifth year — has consistently refused to take questions on the subject.

Yes, Dacca ought to agree to open its sweatshops to ILO inspections. But from Dacca’s point of view, why should they, since the Americans wouldn’t give them any economic carrots for doing such anyway?

There’s a lot more of the same, as we end the tour in Hanoi.

As with the Philippines, the Obama administration is working with Vietnamese authorities — who also have good reason to fear Chinese aggressive moves in the South China Sea — to strengthen security ties. While Washington has welcomed Vietnam’s participation in the TPP trade talks, those negotiations have stalled. It’s a familiar story to regular readers of this journal (see: Imperial Preferences, www.rushfordreport.com). In short, the White House has held up the TPP negotiations by stonewalling Vietnamese requests to be granted more market access to the high-tariff U.S. clothing- and footwear markets. (The most recent protectionist move that Washington has inflicted upon Vietnam: hiking anti-dumping tariffs on imports of Vietnamese catfish (called Basa, or Tra, in Vietnamese) a whopping 79 percent, per kilo. Top leaders in Hanoi are very angry, because they have reason to believe that the U.S. Commerce bureaucrats deliberately crunched the numbers to punish Vietnam’s seafood industry — hardly for the first time.)

If there is a hint of more positive news to report, it’s that the more enlightened segments from the U.S. business community are becoming more outspoken about the need for a more effective U.S. trade policy.

Let’s end our tour back in Washington, D.C. by noting some basic insights offered by Rick Helfenbein and Harold McGraw III.

Helfenbein is the vice chairman of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. “For those of us engaged in the pursuit of trade, and for those of us who believe that a robust trade policy is essential to the enhancement of the U.S. economy, the last four years have been disappointing,” he recently wrote in an internal AAFA publication. “Both the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress have demonstrated that talk about trade policy is simply a form of floating non-productive rhetoric, despite the positive economic growth that comes from achieving a robust trade policy.
It makes one wonder as to how such a worthy group of elected officials can work so hard at talking a good game, yet fail to perform.”

McGraw, also one of of Washington’s most influential figures on the trade scene, chairs the Emergency Committee for American Trade. President Obama “should lead by example,” McGraw wrote in a March 7 op-ed column for Politico. “Unfairly restricting access to our market sends the clear message to other governments that they can do the same. Regressive U.S. tariffs on clothing and footwear, trade restrictions on sugar and dairy products and other barriers end up imposing significant costs on U.S. businesses and consumers and must be addressed,” the ECAT leader added.

“We can’t ask others to let us fully access their markets when we don’t let them fully access ours.”

Meanwhile, perhaps Obama might reflect upon the irony that because he has not connected the economic side of his Asian pivot to the political-military side, U.S. economic ties throughout the region could diminish on his watch.

Tar Baby

posted by
on November 27, 2012

As President Barack Obama won’t begin his second four years in the Oval Office until January 21, nobody yet— at least nobody beyond the president himself and a narrow circle of White House insiders like top economic aide Mike Froman — really knows whether the president is interested in bringing a new vision to get US trade policy moving again. He doesn’t seem to be, if a response I received from Froman’s office indicating that trade will not be one of the president’s top international economic priorities turns out to be an accurate guide. The clear impression is that Obama and his top advisors are satisfied that they have already been doing the right things on trade policy, so nothing major will change in the second term. And as I’ll report later in this article, the president’s otherwise highly successful recent trip to Southeast Asia produced more evidence of why U.S. trade policy is presently stuck on the Tar Baby that the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations seem to becoming for Obama.

That’s at least a skeptic’s view. But if it turns out that Obama really will be looking at what he could do to boost global trade flows, while reclaiming America’s lost high ground on important international economic issues, he won’t have to look far. On the decency side of the equation, the president might want to consider the advice that Ed Gresser has patiently offered for years. Gresser is a loyal Democrat and a widely respected trade analyst who directs the GlobalWorks Foundation’s ProgressiveEconomy project. He has become well-known for making both a moral and economic argument that high U.S. tariffs on shoes and clothing should be eliminated. Basically, Gresser reasons that those tariffs — which generally hover from perhaps 12-18 percent to more than 30 percent — are regressive taxes on America’s poorer consumers. He also points out that the tariffs constitute unnecessary trade barriers that hamper millions of women in developing countries who are trying to sew their ways out of poverty. Washington’s traditional reluctance to get rid of those cruel tariffs — in both Republican and Democratic administrations — is widely resented in the so-called Third World, and is one of the reasons why the WTO’s Doha Round of tariff-slashing has been so acrimonious.

And for a very significant international economic payoff, Obama only has to look uptown, beyond K Street to the 19th Street, N.W. offices of the international law firm, Squire Sanders. There, Shanker Singham, who heads Squire Sanders’ global market access practice, has a big idea. Beyond its purely financial rewards, Singham’s idea would truly restore America’s former claims to international economic leadership (especially in the WTO, which remains the all-important bedrock of the global trading system). Read the rest of this article »

Disconnect

posted by
on November 13, 2012

Now that President Barack Obama has defeated the hapless Mitt Romney to win a second term in the Oval Office, its time to look at where the president’s international trade agenda currently stands — especially viewed in light of how Obama’s trade policies fit into broader U.S. national security policies towards the fastest-growing region in the world: Asia. That brings us to the first problem. There’s a disconnect. Obama’s foreign policy — the so-called Asian “pivot, or “rebalancing” — promotes closer security ties across the region, with a particular emphasis on traditional Asia-Pacific treaty allies like Japan and the Philippines (which are embroiled in threatening maritime disputes with China). But the president’s trade agenda excludes the Japanese, the Filipinos, and other important Asian trading partners from participation anytime soon in the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.

Later this week, as the president heads for a triumphal post-election tour of Southeast Asia, he will likely be embarrassed, as other Asian nations will signal clearly their intent to expand regional trade, whether the United States participates or not. But I’m getting ahead of the story, which is best understood in the context of the White House ambitions for the TPP negotiations.

To date, Obama has placed all of his trade chips on the TPP talks. They are the only international trade negotiations the administration is involved in (although the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has been talking about opening new preferential trade negotiations with the European Union). For four years, Obama has paid scant attention the World Trade Organization, showing little interest in working with that vital multilateral trade institution to set the rules for global trade expansion. Lack of support from the United States — once the indisputable genuine leader in promoting multilateral trade liberalization — has weakened the WTO as an institution. Obama has, in fact, not launched any new U.S. trade initiatives whatsoever, not even the TPP. Predecessor George W. Bush and his top trade negotiator, Susan Schwab, signaled their intent to join the TPP process in 2008. But when Obama became president the next year, he put the TPP on ice until late 2009. But since the White House joined the talks, the TPP has made little progress. The first deadline for completion, November, 2011, was missed. So was the next deadline, this past June. Now, there is no end in sight for the TPP. Obama has never even sought so-called congressional fast-track negotiating authority to conduct any international trade negotiations, so if he would somehow manage to strike a TPP deal, it’s chances of being well-received on Capitol Hill are uncertain.

The White House gets most of the blame for the TPP’s present uncertainty. First, Obama has conveyed the clear impression that he sees the TPP as a regional trade model where the United States would play a dominant role at the hub of an economic coalition of the willing. The U.S.-led trade bloc would gradually bring in other members who would agree to rules basically established in Washington — except for China. Beijing would be encircled, and would only eventually be welcomed into the club as one of the spokes to the American hub. The notion that the TPP is at the center of a U.S. strategy to build an Asian trade bloc aimed at containing China is not sitting well with the other TPP negotiating countries, especially Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. While the diplomats from such countries remain discrete, their concerns are reflected in The Trans-Pacific Partnership: A Quest for a Twenty-first Century Agreement. This is an important new book, with chapters contributed by some of the best-informed trade authorities on both sides of the Asia-Pacific. Specifically, the White House would do well to contemplate the observations drawn in Chapter 18 by Australian scholars Ann Capling (of Murdoch University, in Perth) and John Ravenhill (Australia National University, in Canberra).

The TPP, the well-connected Capling and Ravenhill report with authority, is increasingly being perceived as “part of a U.S. foreign policy strategy to contain China.” Already the White House has heard from officials in Australia, New Zealand that “it is not in their interests to participate in trade arrangements that are seen to be hostile to China.” The Aussies and Kiwis have laid down a red line that they could bolt the talks, if the Americans don’t step up their economic game.

Singapore, as well as Australia and New Zealand, are looking for a clean, forward-looking so-called “21st Century Gold Standard” type of free trade deal that would help foster greater regional, even multilateral, trade expansion. While the White House has been happy to use such high-sounding rhetoric, much of what Washington has actually put on the negotiating table is a familiar litany of old-style protectionism aimed at pleasing Obama’s base in the anti-trade wing of his Democratic Party. It mainly comes down to special carve-outs to protect U.S. sugar quotas, subsidies for U.S. dairy farmers, legally binding rules on labor and the environment to satisfy U.S. labor unions, no liberalization of widely-resented U.S. anti-dumping rules, high tariffs on athletic footwear, and complex rules of origin aimed at preventing Vietnam from expanding its exports of garments to the United States. (Strident American demands for just the latter two alone could be deal killers.) Consequently, the once-promising TPP is beginning to look like just another ordinary trade-distorting scheme, and one that is not particularly economically important.

The disconnect worked for Obama in his first term, at least in terms of shoring up his domestic political position for a second term in office. For example, consider the decision to give Japan only tepid support last November, when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda expressed his interest in joining the TPP. “That was an extremely courageous act” on Noda’s part, observes R.K. Morris, who heads the respected Global Business Dialogue, in Washington, D. C. Noda immediately came under heavy fire from Japanese protectionists. To make matters worse, as Morris points out, “there was no real welcoming” from Washington. Noda was left hanging.

One would have thought the White House would have jumped at the chance to welcome Japan into the TPP. After all, Japan is America’s most important security ally in the Pacific. And the potential of making the TPP a truly big economic idea with the participation of the world’s third-largest economy should have duly impressed the White House.

It didn’t. Obama’s lukewarm treatment of Noda’s bold move was rooted in U.S. domestic politics and the president’s re-election campaign. The White House aimed at pleasing the United Autoworkers of America and the luminaries of the U.S. auto-parts lobby who are vehemently opposed to the notion of expanding trade with Japan. Beyond Japan, trade expansion wasn’t part of the president’s election calculations anyway. Obama also ran against China as the Buy American candidate who boasted of his credentials as an economic nationalist at every opportunity on the 2012 campaign trail. (Republican Mitt Romney also tried to connect with the fears of American blue-collar voters, trying rather unconvincingly to out-flank Obama as a China basher. Romney’s former colleagues in the sophisticated private-equity world probably wondered what got into poor, oh-so-ambitious Mitt.)

But now, as the president heads to Southeast Asia at the end of this week to meet his regional peers at an East Asian Summit, Obama will begin to face the consequences of his permanent campaign. Japan, Korea, China, the Philippines et. al. are already preparing to move on to deepen their regional trading relationships, even if that means leaving the United States on the sidelines.

The TPP as presently constituted, Philippine Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima told a high-powered audience in Washington, D.C. convened in September by the new-and-energetic U.S. – Philippines Society and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is economically flawed. It would distort regional trade flows and thus “hinder” the laudable goal of trade expansion. Manila has been working closely with Leon Panetta’s Pentagon, the Pacific Command, and Hillary Clinton’s State Department to deepen security ties. But it seems that the Philippines has accepted the fact that over at the White House, the president isn’t prepared to engage seriously on ways to enhance economic ties to the Philippines. On Nov. 12, Adrian Cristobal Jr., the Philippine undersecretary of the department for trade and industry, laid out his country’s trade priorities in Manila’s Business Mirror. The Philippines, he said, “should be a more active player in regional economic integration.” Toward that end, he advocated expanding trade ties throughout Southeast Asia, and also Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India — and China. There was no mention of the United States.

Obama is scheduled to fly to Myanmar (formerly Burma), Thailand, and Cambodia from Nov. 17 – 20, on what the White House is portraying as a triumphant post-election tour to emphasize America’s enduring commitment to remain an Asian power. But although the exact schedule has not been announced, trade aficionados would be well-served to watch what happens on Nov. 18, when Obama participates in the East Asian Summit in Phnom Penh. There, negotiations for a new regional trade-liberalizing deal called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership will be announced. The RCEP’s members will include the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, plus six other countries that have signaled their intentions to join in (the so-called ASEAN + 6): Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, India, and China. So far, neither Russia nor the United States has shown any interest in participating in the RCEP.

As the sharp-eyed Ernie Bower noted in a recent analysis published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the White House and the Kremlin have set themselves up for a diplomatic embarrassment next week. “If the United States does not join the RCEP, the White House should prepare for an awkward moment at the EAS [East Asian Summit] when presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are asked to step out of the room while the rest of the Asia Pacific leaders move forward on economic integration and line up for the RCEP photo op,” Bower warned last month. “The RCEP need not be competitive with the TPP, and it fills the strategic gap that exists between U.S. strategy and U.S. trade policy in the Asia Pacific.”

Mike Froman, the top White House international economic aide — who, if Washington street talk is to be believed, could replace the soon-to-depart Ron Kirk as the U.S. Trade Representative — declined to be interviewed for this article. Nor would Froman respond to written questions that addressed Bower’s analysis of the disconnect. (One of my questions was whether Froman still believes that the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative — whose elite corps of skilled trade negotiators has served this country well, at least when they have received enlightened policy support from the White House — should be tucked away somewhere in the sprawling Commerce Department.)

Meanwhile, as the reality of TPP negotiations continues to lag far behind the hype, one wonders exactly what economic benefits the Obama administration is looking to. Washington already has preferential trade pacts with six of the ten TPP countries: Australia. Singapore, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and Canada. These countries have been informed by Washington that they cannot expect any further access to U.S. markets in the TPP. Those deals, the White House insists, are to remain static. (By contrast, Hong Kong’s preferential trade deal with mainland China is regarded as a “living” document. Hong Kong officials are constantly working with their mainland Chinese counterparts on ways to further liberalize their cross-border trade, to their mutual advantage.)

Any new economic opportunities for enhanced U.S. trade with the remaining TPP countries would only involve four remaining smaller (if vibrant) economies that currently do not have their own preferential trade arrangements with Uncle Sam: New Zealand, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam. This is all there is at the core of the Obama administration’s only ongoing international trade negotiations. One is reminded of the Wizard of Oz.

To be sure, the task of persuading some Asian trading partners to participate in meaningful trade liberalization is never easy. Thailand, trapped in bitter domestic political divisions that make Washington’s gridlock seem tame, don’t seem able to move for the foreseeable future. (However, there are rumors that the Thais will give everyone a big surprise, perhaps even within the week, that they have changed their attitude and will participate in the TPP after all. If so, that would be widely regarded as a very helpful move within the region.) Cambodia’s Hun Sen presides over a corrupt and incompetent regime that has basically been captured by Beijing. Myanmar/Burma, happily is in the beginning stages of opening up to trade and investment. But Japanese multinationals, not American corporations which remain caught in the sanctions trap, are the ones poised to exploit the new business opportunities. Indonesia, which sees Asean as a Greater Indonesia bloc, is in a protectionist, chest-thumping mood these days. As Robert Fitts, a former U.S. ambassador who now heads the American Studies program at Bangkok’s elite Chulalongkorn University, told me when we met in August, there are presently limits to what U.S. economic diplomacy can accomplish these days, beyond being patient. Meanwhile, the Thais and Cambodians are stepping up their trade with China. Little Laos and Tajikistan, each of which shares borders with China and which are set to become the WTO’s 157th and 158th members, don’t even seem to be on the U.S. economic radar screen. But they are on China’s.

But however unfortunate the timing is for some Asian countries to pursue real trade liberalization, it’s different with Japan and the Philippines — difficult, to be sure, but hardly intractable on trade expansion. True, the Japanese are famously protective of their inefficient-but-beloved domestic rice, to cite the most famous example explaining Tokyo’s traditional reticence in international trade negotiations. And key sectors of the Philippine economy, the WTO has reported, remain reserved to entrenched local elites who have little enthusiasm for competing in global markets. Sometimes — well, quite often, actually — it seems that the Philippine elites are determined to do whatever it takes to discourage much-needed foreign investment. Moreover, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III acknowledges that he has sympathies for Filipino First economic policies (the equivalent to Barack Obama’s Buy American sentiments). Filipino First policies, in fact, are at the root of that country’s long economic decline since they were instituted in the 1950s.

But it’s a mistake to write the Philippines off. Aquino — the rare uplifting example of an honest leader in the Philippine presidential palace — has launched a serious anti-corruption campaign that has put his country on the right track toward economic growth. “We are firing on all economic cylinders,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario rightly notes. Former U.S. diplomat John Forbes, a man with decades of experience in Manila, agrees. Forbes says that what Aquino has been doing to get his country moving is truly “unprecedented.” And former U.S. Navy Captain Dennis Wright, who is developing a major industrial park at what used to be the U.S. Air Force base at Clark Field, agrees that “the U.S. has been remiss in not engaging more substantively” with the Philippines. “Anything to strengthen trade and commerce would only help,” Wright adds.

I have been following the Philippines closely for more than four decades, and — despite the fragility of the reforms that Aquino has launched — have never felt more optimistic about that country’s reaching its great potential. The big worry, and one that Aquino and his team readily acknowledge, is that there is no assurance that after Aquino’s term runs out in 2016 that his successor would bring comparable dedication and integrity to the office. Over at the Pentagon and at the Pacific Command, it is generally understood that along with closer security ties, working with the Philippines to promote lasting economic growth should be a top American priority priority. Asia-watchers in Hillary Clinton’s State Department — especially Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, who has missed no opportunity to promote closer economic as well as security ties across the region — get it. But the White House doesn’t seem to understand that right now is the time to work with important allies like the Philippines on genuine economic reforms. (Readers who are interested in more details on the Philippines’ impressive recent history are referred to Asia’s Next Tiger, which I authored last June for ForeignPolicy.com. The piece is also posted on www.rushfordreport.com.)

Moreover, if the goal is to connect strategic calculations with trade liberalization, the White House might reflect upon what the United States might do to help foster Philippine-Malaysian relations. The two Southeast Asian neighbors have long shared a mutual suspicion, based in part on lingering territorial disputes over the island of Sabah. But as Steve Rood, the Asia Foundation’s top man in Manila, relates, Malaysian officials have recently played a helpful and constructive role in facilitating a promising peace deal that Aquino has reached with Moro insurgents in Mindanao. Aquino, who was originally reluctant to involve the Malaysians, is now thought to be most appreciative of their quiet-but-effective assistance to the delicate peace talks. But while Kuala Lumpur is welcomed by the United States into the TPP, the Philippines is not. Isn’t this another good reason for now reaching out more seriously to Manila?

This past August I had the opportunity to speak in Bangkok with Curtis S. Chin, a savvy former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. Chin now lives in Bangkok, where he is a senior fellow with the Asian Institute of Technology. “I think we have to be more strategic in how we engage Asia, and it has to go beyond a military pivot,” Chin told me. It’s a mistake, he added, “to compartmentalize our policies, with foreign policy separate from trade policy.”

Those are words that the White House would be well-advised to reflect upon more deeply as the president begins his second term in the Oval Office. Patrick Cronin, a man with more than three decades of national security experience who is now affiliated with the Center for a New American Security, sums up the general consensus among Washington’s Asia hands. “The U.S. has had no real trade policy” in the last four years, Cronin told me earlier this year. Obama can be grateful that he now has a second chance to help foster global economic expansion — as without this new opportunity to start fresh, history surely would not be kind to his lack of accomplishments on international trade in the first four years. It’s time for the permanent campaign to end, Mr. President.

The main themes of President Barack Obama’s international-trade strategy for the November 6 presidential election are now fully established. It’s all about the 21st Century, where the buzzwords are American jobs, U.S. exports, and more American jobs. He doesn’t want America known for “buying stuff from other nations,” Obama told representatives from a dozen-plus corporate luminaries including Ford Motor Co. and Intel Corp. who assembled in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 11. “I want us to be known for making and selling products all over the world stamped with three proud words: ‘Made in America.'”

If economists would immediately retort that the president’s language was the stuff of 17th and 18th century mercantilism, practicing politicians could shoot back that hey, campaigns are not academic seminars. In that vein, the nation’s Politician in Chief furthered his plea for economic nationalism in his Jan. 24 State of the Union address, where he asked Congress to help him give tax breaks aiming at bringing back lost manufacturing jobs to US shores. More broadly, Obama will be vigorously asserting that on his watch, he has succeeded in restoring America’s traditional claims to international economic leadership. Toward that end, he will ignore his lack of focus on what should have been top priority — the truly big-money stakes involved with the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round of multilateral trade liberalization talks, which the White House has helped kill. Instead, Obama will keep touting how he managed to obtain congressional passage of three small-by-comparison trade pacts last year— with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama — that had been negotiated by predecessor George W. Bush, but had become trapped in Washington’s gridlock. Obama has also positioned himself as an an advocate of government efficiency: a reformer who is fighting for lean-and-efficient bureaucracies, pitted against an entrenched Congress and corporate lobbyists. And looking to a second term in office, Obama will advertise his focus on forging deeper ties with dynamic, forward-looking Asian-Pacific economies in a region which he asserts Bush had neglected (and which conveniently encircles China, a trading partner that the president misses no opportunity to say doesn’t “play by the rules”).

The forward-looking Asia-Pacific part of the Obama campaign strategy was clearly on display before a high-powered audience of Washington insiders who packed a conference room on K Street the morning of Jan. 4 at an event organized by the respected bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. Keynote speaker Michael Froman, the deputy national security adviser for international and economic affairs, smoothly spoke of US leadership in the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. The TPP negotiations are designed to liberalize trade with promising Asia-Pacific countries including Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia and Vietnam, Froman said. After the Obama administration came into office in 2009, the White House had studied the gridlock and “determined that we needed a new, 21st century approach to trade,” Froman said. “When we launched TPP,” the White House top international economic aide added, “we developed entirely new texts that reflected US interests and the competitive realities of the region…we pushed our limits and forced ourselves to try to think a bit outside the box about traditional issues.” US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and his team of trade negotiators, Froman related, “have now led 10 rounds” of TPP negotiations, boasting how in 2010 “we welcomed” emerging tiger-cub economies Malaysia and Vietnam into the trade pact.

But a close examination of what has really happened on the Obama watch strongly suggests that the White House claims to economic leadership in the TPP negotiations should not necessarily be taken at face value. For openers, the United States isn’t even a member of the trade pact. Moreover, the issues that are at the core of the White House negotiating strategy are straight out of an 18th century fascination with the mercantile world of high tariffs. It’s the same old story: sugar, steel, cotton, clothes, shoes, and a few other coddled farm lobbies. Moreover, even a cursory look at Obama’s proposals to “streamline” what he says are inefficient federal trade agencies reveals an absence of policy prescriptions truly aimed at bringing official US trade policies into line with 21st century economic realities.

Here’s the story, beginning with the White House assertions of enlightened 21st century “leadership” in the Asia-Pacific negotiations. Read the rest of this article »