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8-Day Asia Trip Critical To Obama's Regional Strategy


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The schedule of President Obama's trip to East Asia offers a reminder that there are at least two East Asias. There's the giant of the region, China, the focus of so much attention.

MONTAGNE: Then there are China's neighbors, and many worried about that country's growing power. Many are allied with the U.S. President Obama will visit some of those neighbors over the next week: Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.

INSKEEP: The White House has been promoting a possible free trade deal among a dozen Pacific nations.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: This is President Obama's do-over visit to Asia. He was forced to cancel two major summits there last October because of the U.S. government shutdown. That came just as confidence in the U.S. was beginning to erode, says Matthew Goodman, a senior advisor for Asian economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says President Obama will have to send a clear message that the U.S. is committed to a long-term relationship with the Asia-Pacific region.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: With all the other distractions in the world and the Middle East and the Ukraine situation and elsewhere, I think the president wants to show that the U.S. is an enduring part of the Asia-Pacific community, and that it's here on all levels: political, security, economic.

NORTHAM: Goodman says economics is at the heart of the administration's strategy for Asia, particularly a free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It would pull together 12 countries, among them Australia, Chile and Malaysia. Negotiations between the U.S. and some relatively smaller economies in the region began four years ago. Then last summer, Japan joined the group. As the world's third-largest economy and a major trading partner with most countries in the Asia Pacific arena, Japan's inclusion completely changed the dynamics of the TPP. Goodman says for one thing, now the TPP would collectively represent 40 percent of the world's economy.

GOODMAN: It's quite significant. I think initially, people saw TPP as a just a commercial undertaking, but really, it does have tremendous strategic importance, particularly in this region where there's a lot of fluidity over who's really running the region and how countries are interacting with each other at a time when power balances are shifting.

NORTHAM: President Obama's first stop is in Tokyo, where he'll meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The U.S. and Japan are the center of gravity for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, making up 80 percent of its economic heft. Mireya Solis, a senior fellow and Japan specialist at the Brookings Institution, says Obama needs the agreement to help cement his Asia strategy. She says Abe also has a lot riding on the TPP.

MIREYA SOLIS: What Japan needs to do, first and foremost, is to arrest the narrative of economic decline. It's, you know, it's now launching a very ambitious economic revitalization strategy known as Abenomics, and the centerpiece of that are structural reforms, certainly many of which are tied to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

NORTHAM: Analysts say if the U.S. and Japan can only reach broad agreement on principle, it would still give a tremendous boost to the other 10 nations to sign a deal. But negotiations between Japan and the U.S. have stalled, particularly over Japanese tariffs for commodities such as rice, says Solis.

SOLIS: And, you know, this has come really down to the wire. We know we're running out of time. The President Obama and Prime Minister Abe are going to meet on Thursday. If a deal is to be made, it must happen before that all-important summit meeting.

NORTHAM: Solis says failure to reach agreement during this trip would likely reduce momentum to finalize a deal with the other participants. She points out that there are other trade blocks emerging in Asia that include China, but not the U.S. But even if there is a breakthrough with Japan, the president could have trouble getting it through Congress. Already, there's push-back against such a deal, says Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, from Connecticut.

REPRESENTATIVE ROSA DELAURO: TPP would force Americans to compete against workers from nations such as Vietnam, where the minimum wage is $2.75 per day. It threatens to roll back financial regulations, environmental standards and U.S. laws that protect the safety of drugs and food and the toys that we give to our kids.

NORTHAM: Analysts say Obama would have to spend a lot of political capital to get a TPP deal through Congress, but few people think that would happen until after the mid-term elections.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.