Trade is strategy for America in Asia

The setback suffered by the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal in the United States Congress is a worrying sign of America's fluctuating ability to underpin its national interests in Asia with a commensurate set of multilateral responsibilities.

By declaring that trade is strategy, Singapore Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam delivered a pithy and pointed reminder to the Barack Obama administration of the larger strategic context that should frame long-term American decisions in a region crucial to America's security.

Ironically, it was President Obama's fellow Democrats who blocked the TPP's passage, failing to live up to a larger vision linking trade and strategy.

That failure is habitual for assertive labour unions and environmental groups, but lawmakers in charge of the national destiny should be able to look beyond such constituencies as they survey America's place in the world.

That pre-eminent place is not guaranteed. America faces a geopolitical landscape marked by the rise or re-emergence of countervailing powers such as China and Russia.

The political and economic institutions which upheld Western influence in general, and American supremacy in particular, after World War II are giving way to new arrangements in the long aftermath of the Cold War.

The recent creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is a telling example of a regional initiative that could bypass American interests unless Washington signals its determination to stay the economic course. The TPP would be a milestone.

The American foreign policy establishment must abjure any notions of being in default charge of the world. No one else is, either, but everyone is living through intensely transitional times.

In that evolving context, the American pivot to the Indo-Pacific would be incomplete if its military aspects were to be divorced from the need to accommodate accelerating change in a region coming into its economic own.

Certainly, Asia's front-line economies owe much of their success to the stability created by Pax Americana, which gave them strategic space to concentrate on economic growth. However, the momentum created by America's forward presence, both military and economic, could be lost.

America's Asian partners are not coy about celebrating the legacy of the American peace and Washington's role in the creation of a rules-based international order. However, they have to adjust their economic and foreign policies to stay abreast of change.

America remains for many the partner of first choice, but the strength of that partnership will depend on its desire to play a decisive regional role. It has the ability; what needs demonstration is the will.


This article was first published on June 19, 2015.
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