Obama Heads to Asia for APEC, ASEAN, EAS and the G-20

This weekend President Obama departs for a long-awaited trip to Asia, packing in four summits with some of the world’s most important leaders and a state visit to China. The first stop will be the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in China, the next will include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Burma, and the final stop will be the G-20 Summit in Australia. During his last trip to Asia in April, Obama described his foreign policy in limited terms: “You hit singles; you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” he said.  This trip to Asia offers him an opportunity to play ball and bring home some needed wins.

The summits and other meetings provide a moment to demonstrate U.S. leadership on security challenges. They also offer the prospect of deepening economic integration, not just in Asia but also more broadly with Europe and other regions. In addition, the trip gives the White House the chance to emphasize foreign and economic policy goals that can be broadly embraced by Democrats and Republicans. Increasing trade, creating more jobs and fueling greater economic growth in the United States and globally will be a focus at each stop, and a critical area where the United States and its partners, as well as the Obama administration and Congress, need to get on the same page.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit

The first stop will be the APEC Summit, hosted by China on the 25th anniversary of APEC’s efforts to boost trade and investment across the region. There has been considerable discussion about whether APEC leaders should begin preparatory work for launching negotiations on a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). As the United States and 11 partners continue to narrow the list of outstanding issues involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and negotiations get under way on a separate regional initiative led by China—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)—the time is ripe to undertake a study but not to commit to launching a third effort. Rather, the focus needs to remain on completing the TPP negotiations, beginning with an agreement by the United States and Japan on market access for automobiles and agriculture. U.S. and Japanese negotiators have come close enough to a deal for their leaders now to muster the courage to push it across the finish line. There are still serious differences to be bridged among all TPP parties on other issues, but resolving the U.S.-Japan impasse next week would create the momentum to persuade other leaders to make similarly tough compromises. Given the tremendous strategic and economic importance of concluding TPP—whose partners together represent 800 million people and account for nearly 40 percent of global GDP and one-third of global trade—failure here is not an option.

The U.S-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit

The next stop is Burma, for the U.S-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS). Together, ASEAN comprises the seventh largest economy in the world and the fourth largest U.S. trading partner. The U.S.-ASEAN forum enables the United States to work closely with smaller Asia-Pacific countries, such as Cambodia, Laos and Burma, and encourage further political and economic reforms. The signature initiative of Enhanced Economic Engagement (E3) designed to further increase investment and regulatory cooperation, however, needs a strong push from its ASEAN members.

The EAS group brings other regional powers into discussions with ASEAN, in particular India. Determining how New Delhi can assume a more constructive role in Asia’s economic cooperation is important both for India and the region. Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi just a few weeks after Modi’s visit to Washington can keep up pressure on India to remove its objections to the recent World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement on trade facilitation—an agreement that is needed to cut red tape and delays at international borders and, more broadly, for the credibility of the WTO.

The G-20 Summit

The final summit is the G-20, hosted by Australia in Brisbane, where the focus will be on ways to improve global growth. Measures to be discussed include boosting investment in infrastructure, minimizing barriers to trade, promoting fair competition, and identifying steps to stimulate employment. While not new, these themes take on heightened importance this year. The IMF has again downgraded prospects for global growth and is warning of increased risk, both financial and geopolitical. In a similar vein, the WTO has lowered its forecast for global trade growth amid weaker than expected GDP growth and reduced demand for imports.

Other Opportunities

Sandwiched between the formal summits are a state visit to China and dozens of formal and informal meetings with other leaders to advance U.S. interests. The visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping should be a frank discussion between two partners that depend on each other as to how they can continue to ease tensions in the East and South China seas and promote political reforms (including in Hong Kong). Obama should also press Xi on whether there is enough common ground to forge ahead with a new investment treaty, and whether China is finally ready to join other countries in adopting a new agreement to expand trade in information technology products.

Meetings with other leaders on the margins of the summits will focus on common challenges in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, including greater contributions to help West African countries devastated by Ebola, and increased coordination on fighting the Islamic State (known also as ISIS or ISIL). Russian President Vladimir Putin will be attending the APEC and G-20 summits for the first time since Russia invaded Crimea last spring and began a proxy war in Ukraine. There will be ample time for Obama, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others, to raise continuing concerns with Putin as well as reaffirm a willingness to work together elsewhere, such as on nuclear negotiations with Iran. In addition, Obama will see Jean-Claude Juncker for the first time in Juncker’s new role as president of the European Commission. The other major U.S. trade negotiation under way, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), now needs a stronger push from the new Commission and European leaders, as well as the United States, if it is to succeed in boosting European economic recovery and further strengthening U.S.-EU bonds.

Facing Leaders Abroad, Congress at Home

The common thread to these summits and international meetings is a desire to improve collective economic and political security in an era of growing insecurity and uncertainty. But just as important as the message Obama sends to the rest of the world about America’s strategy and commitment towards Asia and other regions will be how he articulates his priorities to U.S. voters and Congress. This is especially true following the latest election results and what they say about Americans’ hunger for more widespread economic growth.

The Republicans this week set forth several areas of potential cooperation with the Obama administration, including on trade. The incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Orrin Hatch, indicated he was eager to move trade promotion authority, known as TPA or “fast-track,” forward. At his first post-election news conference, Obama said he is ready to work to grow U.S. exports and open new markets, although he avoided mentioning the word “trade” or the need for TPA.

While TPA legislation is not necessary now as a legal matter, it is vital to enabling the United States to achieve the best deal possible, both in TPP and afterwards in TTIP. Trading partners have made clear that they are not ready to complete negotiations until Congress has given the Obama administration the promise of a fast-track process that limits amendments to a signed trade deal. Passing a fast-track bill has never been easy. Unambiguous presidential leadership will be needed to do that, especially if the president views robust economic growth and cementing stronger economic and national security ties with Asia and Europe as a core part of his legacy.