Posted on Saturday, 11.24.12
In My Opinion
Obama's Asia trip has wider impact
By Andres Oppenheimer
President Obama's recent trip to Asia was totally overshadowed by the
violence in Gaza, to the point that few of us paid any attention to it.
But his visit to Asia may have major implications for Latin America in
general, and for Cuba in particular.
First, at a Nov. 20 meeting with Asian leaders in Cambodia, Obama agreed
to conclude by the end of 2013 negotiations to create the Trans-Pacific
Partnership, a giant free trade area of Asian and Western hemisphere
Pacific rim countries that would become the world's biggest and most
ambitious commercial bloc.
While negotiations for the TPP were already under way, Obama's Asia trip
accelerated the agenda. The next round of negotiations is to take place
Jan. 3 in New Zealand, and the deal is scheduled to be signed by October
next year. It may be ratified and implemented as early as mid-2014.
The proposed TPP bloc would include Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore,
Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile and
Peru, and Japan — the third largest economy in the world, South Korea,
and Colombia also may join.
Although U.S. officials deny it, the TPP is, among other things, an
Obama administration effort to counter China's growing economic weight
on both sides of the Pacific.
"This is huge," says David Lewis, a trade expert with the Manchester
Trade consulting firm in Washington D.C. "It's the biggest trade
agreement we have seen since the 1994 North American Free Trade
Agreement, and it's going to give huge trade advantages to member
countries over those that are not part of it."
This could lead to a de facto partition of Latin America into a group of
Pacific coast countries with free trade agreements with the United
States and Asia, and a bloc of Atlantic countries that are big exporters
of raw materials to China but will not have preferential trade deals
with other Asian markets, experts say.
Mexico, whose president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto is expected to
officially endorse Mexico's participation in the TPP during his first
meeting with President Obama Tuesday, sees TPP as a unique opportunity
to update its NAFTA agreement with the United States and Canada, and,
just as importantly, to gain preferential trade access to Japan's huge
Japan has not announced its official request to join the TPP, because of
resistance from its farmers and other industries. But Naoki Tanaka, head
of the Tokyo-based Center for International Public Policy Studies, tells
me that Japan is most likely to announce its formal request to join TPP
after its Dec. 16 parliamentary elections.
The second interesting thing about Obama's trip to Asia was his visit to
Myanmar, also known as Burma, a military dictatorship that — much like
Cuba — has long been the subject of U.S. sanctions and criticism for its
lack of fundamental freedoms.
The fact that Obama decided to visit Myanmar in response to small but
concrete steps toward a political opening, such as releasing well-known
political prisoners and allowing free elections of lower-level
officials, can be read as a sign that Obama could make a similarly
historic visit to Cuba if that country's military regime makes some
moves toward a political opening.
Asked about the potential Myanmar-Cuba analogy, Roberta Jacobson, head
of the State Department's Western Hemisphere affairs bureau, told me
that Myanmar "is a country that has been very closed and very
repressive, and that has begun to open up. We are not immune to that
change." She added, "If it happens in Cuba, we are going to respond,
like we did in Burma."
My opinion: Both the TPP and a U.S. opening to Cuba — most likely after
Fidel Castro's death — are likely to materialize in the not-so-distant
future. Obama will try to make both things happen during his second
term. He will have his legacy in mind, and these are two issues that
could end up high in history books.
Unlike previous trade agreements such as the Colombia, Panama and South
Korea free trade deals, which were Bush Administration leftovers that
Obama lukewarmly embraced, the TPP is his creation. And an Obama trip to
Cuba in response to some democratic changes on the island would be
historic, especially after more than five decades of U.S. sanctions
against the island's dictatorship.
Perhaps, one day historians will look back at Obama's recent visit to
Asia as a signal of things to come in Latin America.