Death of a treaty

Death of a treaty

What a difference six months makes. Last October, US President Barack Obama was to attend the annual series of Asean meetings in Brunei. But a political crisis over a government shutdown kept him in Washington. Mr Obama did not get to make his personal pitch and plea for participants to wind up negotiations and sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade treaty. On his makeup tour that ends with his departure from Manila today, he has barely mentioned it.

Since missing the Brunei summits, Mr Obama's Asian policy has largely slipped sideways, or worse. The two key parts have actually slipped backwards. That is a classic case of good news-bad news.

The bad news is that thanks to Russia's new-found enthusiasm for imperialism, Washington's so-called military "pivot" to Asia has turned embarrassingly into a re-pivot back to Europe. The good news is that US efforts to bully or encourage trade allies into passing the TPP by the wholly artificial date of last New Year's Eve was rejected, and the treaty is effectively moribund. Mr Obama's plans to conduct personal diplomacy to push through the TPP were thwarted when he had to miss the Brunei summits.

The Obama administration has planned the military pivot — Mr Obama prefers "rebalance" — for several years. It involves opening a US Marine base in Australia, repositioning large forces in Guam and closing many bases in Europe. But budget cuts by Congress have forced a major reduction of the overall troop strength. The shrinking US navy poses the greatest threat to Mr Obama's plans.

Assuming he avoids actual war against Russia, Mr Obama's plan for Asia now looks somewhat forlorn. At present, about 60% of US naval strength is in the European theatre and 40% in Asia. The original pivot plan was to move warships from Europe to Asia and reverse that ratio. Now, the navy will turn Asia's 40% deployment into 60% by a worldwide decommissioning of ships. The Asian front will gain no US navy ships, but it will have 60% of total deployment.

During his visit to Asia, the US president made frequent mention of China's aggressive defence of its claims to South China Sea territory. It was disappointing that he made no new commitment, and had no fresh ideas on solving these disputes.

By correctly criticising the lack of Japanese concern over Korean and other "comfort women" during World War II, Mr Obama increased the tension, but offered no advice on how Japan should properly address its terrible abuses, and indemnify the victims.

As for the TPP, these are the free-trade negotiations that never should have been started. Top-down talks have been taking place between treaty controller Washington and 11 negotiating "partners".

But the talks have been completely secret. There have been two alarming releases of purloined parts of the proposed document by Wikileaks. As seen in these tantalising excerpts, it seems the proposed TPP could have been written — in fact, may have been written — by deep-pocketed, US political donors seeking massive, government-backed advantages in international trade. Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's first term in office should be remembered and celebrated for her refusal to accept Mr Obama's personal invitation to join the TPP talks.

Mr Obama's talks were about mostly bilateral issues in each of the countries he visited — Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. He discussed the TPP with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but the two had profound disagreements, sinking its chances further. The same resistance exists in other Asian countries. The only description for the TPP that could be better than "on indefinite hold" would be "permanently abandoned".

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