APEC Singapore: Obama's Debut in Asia
November 9, 2009
President Obama will make his inaugural visit to Asia later this month. The focal point of his trip is the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Singapore on November 13–15, 2009. He will also visit Japan, China, and Korea in the course of his nine-day trip. This Critical Questions touches on key issues related to his visit to Singapore and the significance of the APEC visit.
Q1: Why should President Obama invest 10 days in Asia with health care, economic recovery, and Afghanistan all requiring urgent attention?
A1: The key word is “invest.” By committing this time, the Obama administration is signaling that it understands that Asia is core to U.S. national security interests. This is the president’s inaugural Asia trip. At APEC, he joins 20 other leaders—including those of China, Russia, and Japan—from the world’s fastest growing and most dynamic region, the Asia Pacific. APEC accounts for over half of all world trade and 60 percent of global GDP. The administration recognizes that trade and investment in this region is a fundamental element of sustained economic recovery; they just aren’t prepared to talk about that yet. At least not until a health care bill is passed. Obama is saving every political chit needed to get that bill passed, and then the trade messaging can begin. Visiting Asia underpins core security interests too—Obama will meet treaty allies Australia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand—and open personal channels with leaders from countries that can provide key support such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Russia. If the United States fails to engage seriously in APEC and Asia, it cedes leadership in the region to China. That is not in U.S. interests, nor is it in the interests of other APEC members.
Q2: What deliverables can we expect from APEC?
A2: Don’t expect much in concrete terms. The big deliverable from APEC for the United States is being there and signaling U.S. engagement in Asia. APEC leaders will seek to send a very strong signal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it must move forward with the Doha Round at a critical juncture. They will also try to reach agreement on aggressively avoiding creeping protectionism by reinforcing commitments to trade liberalization in APEC, defined in the Bogor goals. Countries that cannot wait for others to move ahead on free trade will use the opportunity to underscore their commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) an agreement among APEC member countries that is intended to lead to a Free Trade Area for the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). However, President Obama will not be in a leadership role on these issues this year because his priority is health care. The United States will host the APEC meeting in 2011 (Japan will host next year), so it is important for the Obama administration to participate and put down key markers on issues it hopes to develop and then harvest when it controls the agenda and can play offense on trade. Those issues include trade liberalization, food security and safety, health care access and life sciences, climate change and related energy issues, enhanced security cooperation, and others.
Q3: What is the U.S. role in APEC and how has it developed over time?
A3: The motivation for creating APEC is as relevant today as it was in 1989 when the idea was mooted by Australian prime minister Bob Hawke during as speech in Seoul. The concept was to create a transpacific dialogue that would guarantee strong U.S. engagement. There were proposals for an East Asian Economic Group (EAEG)—an Asia for Asians architecture that excluded the United States during debates over the conflict between Western and Asian values—being promoted by Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad with quiet encouragement from China. Asia’s perception then was that U.S. interests were diverted to other parts of the world and that it was taking its presence and influence in Asia for granted.
Fast forward to 2009 and those same concerns are present. What is different now is that China has nimbly used this historic window to launch a pragmatic charm offensive in Southeast Asia and expanded its diplomatic, economic, and security presence. The United States has remained engaged, but focus has ebbed and flowed. President Clinton hosted the first APEC Leaders Meeting at Blake Island, Washington, but missed two summits. President Bush missed one too but with a good excuse: the United States was at war. The challenge for Obama is to use his rock star–like popularity (he is more popular in Indonesia than in Wisconsin, and has better ratings in Malaysia than in Virginia) to deepen and sustain U.S. engagement and investment in Asia, and position the United States to reap dividends as Asia, by all accounts the world’s most dynamic and fastest growing market, grows and tries to realize its potential.
Q4: What will be the headlines from APEC Singapore?
A4: Headlines from Singapore will not be focused on APEC itself but on the interaction and key issues being handled by its various members. This is the magic and value of APEC: it is the annual meeting of the virtual board of directors for the world’s most dynamic economies and the place where the key relationship that will define world power in the twenty-first century—the U.S.-China dynamic—plays out.
Headlines will include discussions on North Korea security concerns, U.S.-China discussions on trade and related currency issues, the future of the WTO Round, recovery from the world financial crisis, and the approach to Burma. There will also be focus on the role the new Japanese government intends to play in the region, which will be of interest as they prepare to host APEC in 2010. On trade, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will be relaunched and touted as the future impetus for free trade in the region.
Ernest Bower is director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2009 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.