While we are consumed with the ups and downs of the bizarre U.S. presidential campaign, Barack Obama will make his last trip to Asia as president. The direct purpose of his trip to China is to attend a meeting of the Group of 20, but perhaps more importantly, the visit is intended to breathe life into one of his big ideas: the pivot to Asia. It is a genuinely important policy, but Obama is now the last man standing willing to push for it.
Foreign policy is consumed with momentary crises — often created by failing states and violent groups. But in the long run, the future is shaped by winners, not noisy losers. And when the flash points of today have passed, the rise of Asia will remain the dominant trend of our time.
The Pacific will be the arena that defines the 21st century. According to the World Bank, in just 10 years, four of the five largest economies in the world will be in the Asia-Pacific region. The United States will be able to shape the 21st century only if it remains a vital Pacific power.
How should Washington approach this region? One central task is obviously to prevent China from dominating it. That job has been made somewhat easier by Beijing’s recent expansionist moves, especially in the South China Sea. These actions illustrate the challenge China faces — it is not rising in a vacuum. Asia is a crowded continent, and every aggressive move by Beijing produces an angry reaction from neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines. India, which has resisted any moves that would suggest it is ganging up with the United States against China, has nonetheless moved in that direction in recent weeks. The Obama administration has also enhanced security cooperation with a range of traditional allies such as Japan, Australia and Singapore.
But Washington’s policy is not containment. It can’t be. China is not the Soviet Union but rather the most important trading partner for every country in Asia. The larger project, writes Kurt Campbell, who was until 2013 the State Department’s top Asia hand, in his smart book “The Pivot,” is “to strengthen Asia’s operating system — that is, the complex legal, security and practical arrangements that have underscored four decades of Asian prosperity and security.” That means bolstering freedom of navigation, free trade, multilateral groups and institutions, transparency and accountability, and such diplomatic practices as peaceful resolution of disputes.
The most vital of these right now, Campbell notes, is trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the sine qua non of Washington’s pivot to Asia because it works at many levels simultaneously — economic, political and strategic. It boosts growth, shores up U.S. alliances, sends a powerful signal to China and, most importantly, writes the rules of the 21st century in ways that are fundamentally American. Without it, expect China to begin drafting those rules in ways that will be very different.
And yet the TPP is under assault from every quarter in the United States. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Donald Trump flatly oppose it. Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have said that it doesn’t meet their standards anymore. What these standards are, they haven’t specified. Harvard’s Robert Lawrence has noted that for workers, the TPP’s gains far outweigh its losses.
The notion, often peddled by Trump, that the United States comes out badly in trade deals can be asserted only by someone who knows nothing about the topic. The simple reality is that the United States is the country with the largest market. As a result, it has the most leverage and — as foreign officials have often complained to me — it uses it, asking for exemptions and exceptions that few other countries get. The TPP is no different. Asian countries have made most of the concessions. And because their markets are more closed than the United States’, the deal’s net result will be to open them more.
One could argue that Sanders is speaking out of conviction, though it is strange to hear the idealistic socialist viciously denounce trade policies that have lifted hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people out of poverty. With Trump, who knows what he actually believes? The others — most importantly Clinton and Ryan — are shamelessly adopting positions that they must know are wrong. The Republican Party has now reversed itself entirely on two of its core beliefs, immigration and trade, going from a party of openness to one that wants walls and tariffs.
With the Asia pivot, Obama is pursuing the deepest, most enduring interests of the United States. But in doing so, he is now alone in a Washington that is increasingly awash in populism, protectionism and isolationism.
Read more on this issue: