from Asia Unbound

The Futility of Obama’s Southeast Asia Trip?

September 30, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks as Brunei's Sultan and Prime Minister Hassanal Bolkiah listens during the Trans-Pacific Par...eting at the Hale Koa Hotel during the APEC Summit in Honolulu, Hawaii, on November 12, 2011. (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters)
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Later this week, President Obama will embark on a six-day trip to Southeast Asia, visiting Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, to attend the East Asia Summit, the annual ASEAN leaders summit, and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, along with a global entrepreneurs’ meeting in Malaysia. It might seem surprising that the president would leave the United States at such a critical time in federal budget negotiations, but these are the biggest leaders’ meetings in Asia, and since 2009, the White House has committed to increasing the presence of the president and other top Cabinet officials in Asia.

Certainly, face time is critical in Southeast Asia, and the president’s presence at these summits is a sign of the continued U.S. commitment to the region, a sign further burnished by the launch earlier this year of the comprehensive partnership with Vietnam. But what about the substance of these meetings? The White House has pledged to finalize the Trans Pacific Partnership(TPP) by the end of this year, and this will be the top subject at nearly all the summits Obama attends. But the TPP negotiations held in Washington two weeks ago did not make substantial progress on many sectors, and most major U.S. business trade groups are pressing Obama not to make the kinds of compromises on intellectual property during his trip to Asia that most of the other TPP countries demand for talks to be finalized. And even if they did actually finalize TPP, the White House has almost no chance of getting fast trade track authority from Congress again, despite pledges by the Office of the United States Trade Representative to work for it. Without fast track, and with so many concerns in Congress over the vast scope of the TPP, it would likely be dead on arrival on the Hill.

Later in the week, I’ll take a look at how Obama should, during his trip, address concerns over the state of political freedom in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Myanmar, and Cambodia.