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Obama’s Trip to Asia

12 November 2009

by Daniel Michaeli

No small number of experts and non-experts are pointing out that the lack of an Obama trade policy is devastating our credibility in Asia–and that, niceties aside, Obama is bringing little to the table on his trip to Asia this week. But the story just got even worse.

President Obama was scheduled to give a speech at the APEC CEO summit on trade, where many hoped he would renew America’s commitment to trade–a commitment that underpinned U.S. economic relevance in Asia since World War II.

The newest reverberation of the Fort Hood tragedy, which forced the president to cut his trip short by a day, is the cancelation of this speech. Instead, U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk is scheduled to speak on “the United States and APEC Partners in Global Trade Today.”

Asia is moving ahead with its own trade arrangements, and the United States is seeming less and less relevant to the day-to-day economic concerns of our Asian allies. As Japan struggles with a large national debt and sluggish growth, it needs to pursue new trade agreements to keep the economy afloat. Without U.S. engagement on trade, Japan had no choice but to turn to China and explore a free trade agreement between the two countries.

Over the past ten years, Asian countries signed some 124 trade agreements; they are negotiating another 62. There are serious strategic consequences for the United States if we fail to take trade seriously. Asians will ink more and more trade agreements amongst themselves, and with outside actors including the European Union. American companies will lose out in the short term, but the long-term cost will be to our strategic interests. (Indeed, USTR Kirk is rumored to be so fed up with the lack of a trade policy in the administration that he is considering resigning.)

For a good overview of this issue, see the op-ed by Evan Feigenbaum in this morning’s Financial Times, based on the report I worked on with him and Bob Manning, released earlier this month.

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