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Asia pivot a go-go

By Marc-William Palen - posted Wednesday, 28 November 2012


Barack Obama’s speedy postelection pivot to Asia has left the world in a tizzy.

With the U.S. elections safely behind him, Obama promptly headed off to Asia in advance of this week’s East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.

100 years ago, American businessmen and diplomats had obsessed over gaining access to the fabled China Market. With intense U.S. involvement in the trade-oriented Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the once mythical Asia Market is fast becoming even more of a reality.

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Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is already gearing up for Obama’s arrival. Noda hopes to accelerate talks with Obama over Japan’s joining the TPP in the lead up to next month’s negotiations in New Zealand.

So too is Thailand warming up to Obama’s pending visit, and speculation is mounting that it will also seek membership into the TPP, which would make it the fifth ASEAN country to do so.

These entreaties do much to enhance the newfound leadership position of the United States as it goes into this week’s ASEAN Summit and next month’s TPP negotiations.

They also highlight the Obama Administration’s newfound focus on Asia. The fact that Obama’s Asian tour follows so closely on the heels of his reelection “speaks to the importance he places on the region, its centrality to so many of our national security issues and priorities,” a White House official said.

And it isn’t just the United States playing in the Asia-Pacific free trade game. At last Friday’s NAFTA20 Summit in Texas, joining the TPP was just about all Canadian and Mexican business leaders and government officials wanted to talk about, especially since the TPP offers the three nations “an opportunity to update NAFTA on the margins,” observed John Weekes, one of Canada’s lead negotiators for the North American Free Trade Agreement back in the early 1990s.

Canadians seem particularly keen, having successfully pushed their way into the TPP just last month. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has himself “rediscovered” the Asia-Pacific in his attempt to stymie what he calls an increasing global “slippage” toward protectionism.

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But, American interest in Asian markets brings with it sizeable Sino-American tensions, much as it did 100 years before.

Particularly, like the United States, China is also aggressively seeking to expand its economic influence in the region. For example, it is even now moving forward with its own trilateral trade agreement with South Korea and Japan.

Further American military expansion in the Asia-Pacific will only heighten these tensions, and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta only just finished up a visit to Cambodia for the purpose of expanding U.S. military ties there. This move closely followed his announcement that the Pentagon will be enlarging the size of its military exercises in the region, ostensibly to put pressure on North Korea.

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About the Author

Dr. Marc-William Palen is a Research Associate in U.S. Foreign Policy at the U.S. Studies Centre, University of Sydney, and teaches U.S. foreign relations history at Tufts University, Massachusetts.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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