All talk, no action

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 November, 2011, 12:00am
 

US President Barack Obama is hosting leaders from Asia for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Hawaii. The gathering comes on the heels of the G20 Cannes meeting, which was preoccupied with the euro zone crisis. The East Asia Summit will follow a week later, convened by Asean and including, for the first time, Russia and the US.

What can this season of international summits do about the looming global downturn? Can Asia and the US, sans Europeans, co-operate to tackle worsening economic conditions? Can Asia find ways to continue growth?

Expect no cure-alls. Policy options have narrowed since the first co-ordinated efforts at the end of 2008 to pump in money and loosen credit. Those policies have run their course, with mixed results and increased political backlash.

In America, joblessness and inequality are major issues and the 'Occupy Wall Street' phenomenon reveals the restive mood. Asia has overheating problems, with inflation and mounting bad debts from loose credit. While doing relatively well, the region will be affected by the European crisis and poor American prospects.

At the Apec summit, a centerpiece will be the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This aims to reinvigorate trade and economic co-operation and, while only nine countries are involved, American participation has renewed energy and ambition. Japan wants to join future TPP negotiations and the partnership aims to include most other economies.

However, not all about the TPP has been positive. Some parties have resisted American initiatives to integrate more deeply and align regulations. Others outside the negotiations, especially China, have been critical of the effort.

A full agreement will not be ready. Instead, leaders are expected to sign off on a more limited declaration or framework text, with further negotiations to come. Nevertheless, the TPP can be counted as an achievement, buttressing Obama's promise to be a 'Pacific President'.

Yet, beyond Hawaii, the future focus for American leadership in Asia is uncertain. Early next year, Obama faces the long and uncertain presidential election trail. Attention will necessarily shift, given erosions in his approval ratings. The Apec and East Asia summits may prove something of a high point in Obama's efforts to engage Asia.

American domestic politics is raising issues that run counter to positive engagement. Free trade and closer ties with Asia will be an increasingly hard agenda to push with so many still jobless at home. The recent Senate bill naming China as a currency manipulator shows up this sentiment.

Although the bill is unlikely to pass, the accusations are now being bandied about by a number of presidential candidates. Leading Republican contender Mitt Romney has, for instance, called for the US to clamp down on China, blaming it for millions of lost jobs. Positions on Asia and especially China are intertwining with domestic, electoral politics. Prepare for a bumpy ride.

This is especially so as Beijing seems unlikely to smooth things over. There is a growing confidence and assertiveness among the Chinese public and some of the political elite. Beijing, instead, seems keen to find its own place, driving the Asian economy while asserting first rights in disputes, like in the South China Sea. Moderates may talk about working with the US, but few would gain from ceding ground to Washington, especially given the impending change in leadership. Some might indeed gamble on sounding hawkish in the name of nationalism.

The US can no longer lead on its own and neither can China. Yet prospects of a joint US-China leadership - once proposed as a G2 - look like hopeless idealism. With leadership contests in both capitals, things may get worse.

Other Asians therefore face the prospect of tension at the coming summits. They gravitate to China as just about the only remaining hope for continuing economic growth, while looking quite anxiously to the US for strategic assurance.

Leaders may make grand statements but they can neither address the questions about global problems nor settle on the leadership to address such issues.

Diplomacy will dictate that the American and Chinese leaders will be photographed, smiling with their counterparts across the region, and shaking hands. They would do well to do so while they can. Coming events will soon test their smiles and handshakes quite severely.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America

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