By Geoffrey Garrett
With his presidency in big trouble amid deep economic and political problems at home, why is Barack Obama spending more than a week in Asia, sandwiching his trip to Australia between hosting APEC in Honolulu and participating East Asian Summit for the first time in Bali? The answer, according to the president himself, is to demonstrate that "the US is a Pacific power and we are here to stay." This won't do anything for Obama in the US. Republicans have already attacked him for an irresponsible lack of leadership in leaving the country with only a week before the next big budget cutting deadline on November 23. Democrats have chastised Obama for selling out US workers by pushing for regional free trade. Obama is willing to take this domestic heat because he wants nothing less than to execute a fundamental "pivot" in the US' grand strategy, as his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called it. This pivot involves the step-by-step dismantling of the decade long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, replaced by the concentration of US geopolitical energies on the Asia-Pacific. Two features of Obama's self-styled Pacific presidency stand out. First, his strategy couples both political military and economic initiatives. Second, while the partners in these initiatives will be pro-market democracies, US eyes are firmly on China, which is not part of America's values and interests coalition.? The US wants its military alliances in the region to act as an insurance policy against the risk of conflict with China in the future. But it also wants to build an open Asia-Pacific economic system that China will seek to join, even though the price will be domestic economic reforms that the US has long wanted but China has thus far resisted. Can a weakened US and a vulnerable president really deliver on this lofty ambition? The early returns suggest they just might. Obama brokered a deal at APEC to complete, by the end of next year, the new Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) for free trade. Led by the US, nine countries have been working for two years to create a high quality regional free trade agreement (FTA) that would act as a magnet for other countries on both sides of the Pacific. That hope is becoming a reality. Last Friday, Japan's new prime minister said he wants his country to be part of the TPP. Now Canada and Mexico say they too want to join. Following the completion last month of the Korea-US FTA, South Korea is also a likely candidate. With just Japan's involvement, the TPP would dwarf the European Union and represent the most important trade initiative since the creation of the WTO in the early 1990s. Adding Canada, Korea and Mexico to the mix would deliver on the promise of the TPP to grow into a full blown Asia-Pacific FTA. Only China would sit on the outside looking in. But with many of its biggest trade and investment partners involved, the incentives for China to join the TPP would grow ever larger. The price of Chinese admission would, however, be high - a convertible currency, greater market access for foreign firms, and stronger intellectual property protections. The TPP will not become a reality overnight and the political hurdles to its completion cannot be underestimated. But if it happens, the creation of a US-led free trade area of the Asia Pacific that China might later join would clearly be a game changer. On the political military side, the announcement of higher frequency and higher volume rotations of US marines through northern Australian bases signals Obama's intentions to reinforce the alliance system that has served the US and its allies so well over recent decades. Australia has already responded by deciding to sell uranium to India, aligning Australian policy with US policy, and extending the values and interests partnerships of both countries beyond traditional allies. It should come as no surprise that Obama talked tough about China at the APEC summit, or that China's response was fast and frosty. After a decade of distraction during the war on terrorism, the US now wants to get back into Asia in a big way, and largely on its terms. How China responds will have a profound impact on the evolution of the Asia-Pacific century.
Professor Geoffrey Garrett is chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.