Missed opportunity to highlight US-Asia ties

ASIA MATTERS: Mr Modi and Mr Obama in New Delhi on Monday. Prior to embarking for India, the US President had a chance to put the trip in the context of America's enduring commitment to Asia during his State of the Union address, yet references to Asia were limited and brief.


    Jan 28, 2015

    Missed opportunity to highlight US-Asia ties

    JUST days after United States President Barack Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address, the American public may well have been surprised to find the US leader in Asia - namely India - for a landmark visit, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi's trip to the US in September.

    Mr Obama's address to the US Congress, after all, said little to nothing about South-east or South Asia, excluding Afghanistan. And as for the once much discussed "Asia pivot", or rebalance of US foreign policy to focus more on Asia, little has been heard from Mr Obama following a disastrous midterm election for his political party, and continued turmoil in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

    With the eyes of Americans upon him, it is understandable that Mr Obama played primarily to a domestic audience and focused on hometown concerns in his penultimate State of the Union address. As I argued in Fortune Magazine, however, that is unfortunate.

    Prior to embarking for India, Mr Obama had a chance to put that trip in the context of America's enduring commitment to Asia. He missed the opportunity to further what could still be a hallmark of his now-waning administration, namely underscoring to America and to Asia the critical importance of strengthened US-Asia business, educational and cultural engagement.

    Indeed, what could have been a "teaching moment" - on the value of strengthened trade and stronger ties with all of Asia - for American viewers as well as those watching from overseas proved to be a bust from an Asian perspective. Full of praise for what the President saw as his own domestic victories, the speech said little of America's relationship with the world's most dynamic region, and why Asia matters to all of the US.

    From Mr Obama's initial words on disengagement - "for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over" (though some 15,000 US troops remain) - to the less than diplomatic - "as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world's fastest-growing region (and) put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage" - references to Asia in what is typically the most watched presidential speech of the year were limited and brief.

    What of a comprehensive trade agreement now being negotiated - the Trans-Pacific Partnership - by the US and 11 other Asia-Pacific nations? Little was said. Mr Obama did call for "both parties (of Congress) to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren't just free, but fair".

    But then he quickly moved on, doing little to explain the jargon or convince sceptics of his commitment to the hard work necessary to move such trade agreements forward.

    And what of rising tensions in the South China Sea as a wary Asia adjusts to a resurgent China, still the world's second-largest economy despite slowing growth rates? The President was brief.

    "In the Asia-Pacific, we are modernising alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules: in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, and how they participate in meeting common international challenges like non-proliferation and disaster relief," Mr Obama said, before moving to the topic of climate change.

    What else might he have said? According to the latest data from the East-West Centre, a non-partisan Hawaii-based think-tank, hecould well have underscored to Americans that:

    28 per cent of US goods and 27 per cent of US services exports go to Asia;

    32 per cent of US jobs from exports depend on exports to Asia;

    64 per cent of international students in the US are from Asia - contributing US$14 billion (S$19 billion) to the US economy;

    8.5 million visitors from Asia contribute US$41 billion to the US economy; and

    39 states send at least a quarter of their exports to Asia.

    To be clear, America's security and prosperity are closely and increasingly linked to the Asia-Pacific. The region is home not just to China, but also to two of the world's largest democracies, India and Indonesia, as well as several nations - including Japan, the Philippines and South Korea - that the US is bound by treaty to defend. Critically, Asia also provides growing opportunities for US trade, investment and entrepreneurship.

    That is a point that US Secretary of State John Kerry made at a speech at the East-West Centre in Honolulu in August.

    "In the 21st century, a nation's interests and the well-being of its people are advanced not just by troops or diplomats, but they're advanced by entrepreneurs, by chief executives of companies, by the businesses that are good corporate citizens, by the workers that they employ, by the students that they train and the shared prosperity that they create," he said.

    Too bad that is a message which Mr Obama chose not to share in his take from Washington on the state of the US union, as Asia looked on. Whether delivered amid a state visit to India or in the hall of the US Capitol building, the critical point remains: America matters to Asia, but Asia also matters to America.


    The writer is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group and a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.