The Drum (ABC Online)

By Marc-William Palen

No matter how deep they might dig their heads in the sand, the Republican presidential hopefuls appear incapable of ever setting their sights upon Asian shores.

This weekend's CBS/National Journal debate focusing on international affairs only elucidated what many already suspected; the Republican candidates are woefully ignorant of US-Asia relations.

At least Sarah Palin could claim to see Russia from her front porch.

Here is what we learned.

Overall, they would surround themselves with "yes" men, support torture, engage in more pre-emptive wars, and enact "crippling economic sanctions" against Iran.

As to Asia, aside from Herman Cain's now infamous ignorance of China's nuclear weapons program, we discover that the candidates would remain in Afghanistan indefinitely, covertly assassinate Iranian scientists, eliminate aid to Pakistan, and impose retaliatory measures against China for devaluing its currency.

With the issue of job growth paramount, most striking about the Republican debate on foreign affairs was the utter absence of discussion on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which promise to expand the area into a formidable free trade region.

The Republican candidates avoid the Asia-Pacific at their own peril.

US Studies Centre CEO Geoff Garrett rightly points to the promising geopolitical aspects of steering the Asia-Pacific region toward further free trade through TPP and APEC, with the United States standing at the economic helm, and maybe even with China asking to come onboard.

Taken alongside Obama's recent domestically unpopular passage of a bilateral trade agreement with South Korea, his own determination for furthering Asia-Pacific trade liberalisation might at first seem peculiar, especially as such free-trade manoeuvres upset union support back home.

There are multiple explanations for Obama's newfound free-trade advocacy.

First, he already made certain that the free-trade agreement with South Korea - as well as those with Colombia and Panama - contained protectionist strings by making Trade Adjustment Assistance a prerequisite to the bill's passage, an effort that partly placated union opposition, as did Obama's "Buy American" jobs bill and a recent bipartisan retaliatory tariff proposal aimed at China.

Second - and more cynically - as much as Obama might offend his union base, there is no chance that they will throw their support behind any of the Republican candidates, who have consistently shown themselves entirely unsympathetic to union demands. In his opening remarks at APEC, Obama also sought to undercut union criticisms by promising that the free trade deals would spark American job growth.

Third, Obama - who has been straddling both sides of the free trade tight-rope for some time - can assure the international business community that he will not commit the same protectionist mistakes of his presidential predecessor Herbert Hoover, who infamously closed off America's trade with the world in the early 1930s, making the Great Depression even greater.

Obama's support for TPP and APEC are therefore also symbolic gestures signifying that the United States intends to maintain a lead role in future global trade liberalisation.

In the wake of Doha's dismal decade, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has in recent weeks offered her own staunch support for new approaches toward trade liberalisation, including APEC and the TPP. More surprising has been the newfound support of Japan's prime minister, even against the protestations of his country's heavily subsidised farm lobby.

While the hawkish GOP presidential hopefuls wrestle over who will resurrect George W. Bush's neoconservative foreign policy and as they turn a blind eye to the benefits of closer Asian-American economic relations, Obama's gaze is towards the Pacific.

Making up about a quarter of the global GDP, the nations involved in TPP - the US, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Peru, Chile, Vietnam, Brunei and possibly Japan, Canada, and Mexico - received a further boost following a general agreement on freer trade at last weekend's APEC summit in Honolulu.

Although China's future participation in TPP remains doubtful, Australia's Trade Minister Craig Emerson believes the TPP has momentum, in stark contrast to the failed Doha round, especially if Obama and Gillard can bring on board some or all of the 21 members of APEC.

While Republicans wrangle over which Asian nation to vilify next, Obama will shortly land on Australian shores to further solidify the US-Australian alliance.

If Obama, with Gillard's help, succeeds in establishing an effective free trade arena in the Asia-Pacific - and this is a big "if" - he will garner further support from a large segment of the American business community and might even see some American job growth before next November, greatly increasing his chances for re-election in 2012.

Marc-William Palen is a postdoctoral fellow at the United Studies Centre, University of Sydney.