Bloomberg News

Asia Rise Drives Obama Message as U.S.’s First Pacific President

November 16, 2011

Nov. 11 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama, who calls himself “America’s first Pacific president,” is pressing Americans to think more about Asia -- and, in some ways, to think more like Asians do.

He’s highlighting his administration’s turn toward the Pacific by hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Hawaii on Nov. 12-13 and visiting Indonesia on Nov. 17-19 as the first U.S. president to participate in the East Asia Summit. In between the two meetings, he’ll visit Australia to discuss expanded military ties.

In speeches in the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore and Indonesia, Obama has said his Asia focus is driven by today’s economic and demographic trends, while his instincts about the continent are influenced by his birth in Hawaii and four boyhood years in Indonesia.

“The Pacific Rim has helped shape my view of the world,” he said in Tokyo on Nov. 14, 2009. During his lifetime, he said, “The fortunes of America and the Asia-Pacific have become more closely linked than ever.”

His attention to Asia also has a domestic political dimension. Since introducing his $447 billion jobs plan on Sept. 8, Obama has emphasized spending by China, South Korea and other nations on airports, infrastructure and teachers in an effort to build support for his own provisions, which face opposition from congressional Republicans.

Competition is ‘Real’

He has pointed to China and India to stress another priority of his: Promoting science and technology education, to urge American parents, students, schools and companies to train more engineers.

In his Jan. 25 State of the Union address, Obama said the two nations have been “educating their children earlier and longer” with more math and science. China, he said, houses the world’s fastest computer and largest private solar research facility.

“The competition for jobs is real,” he said. “But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us.”

Since his first year in office, Obama has asked Americans to look beyond concerns about Chinese dominance or U.S. job losses and see a diverse region that can be a growing market for U.S. goods and services, yield stronger foreign policy alliances and help respond to global challenges such as climate change.

“I would never say that he’s saying America should emulate Asia,” said Satu Limaye, director of the Washington office of the East-West Center, a Honolulu policy center that studies U.S. relations with Asia-Pacific nations. “What he’s saying is, ‘We should take note of what is happening in other places,’ and this is a call for us to become more competitive.”

Export Boom

American companies are already sold on the region’s importance: The U.S. exported $326.4 billion in 2010 to the Pacific Rim in goods and services, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, up from $254.6 billion in 2009. That exceeded American exports to the European Union or to Canada. From 2000 to 2010, exports to the Pacific Rim rose 71.5 percent.

Those include exports to Australia, Brunei, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Macao, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore and Taiwan.

Looking at a broader swath of Asia, the U.S. in 2009 exported $414 billion in goods and services to Asian countries, a 56 percent increase since 2001, according to the Asia 40 index of countries developed by the East-West Center’s Asia Matters for America initiative. That index compiles data from the census, U.S. Department of Commerce and Institute of International Education.

Supporting U.S. Jobs

That 40-country region also accounted for 30 percent of total U.S. jobs supported by exports, or almost 850,000, in 2009. Students from the Asia-Pacific contributed $9 billion a year to the U.S. economy, and there were 350,000 Asian students studying in the U.S. in the 2008-09 academic year, according to the index, which includes countries in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. And 26 percent of the U.S.’s foreign-born population came from Asia.

Free-trade agreements among Asian nations are expanding, meanwhile, from six deals in 1995 to 70 now in force and 70 more under negotiation, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. has trade accords with Australia, Singapore and South Korea. The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which Obama signed on Oct. 21, will boost American exports by as much as $10.9 billion in its first year in full effect, the U.S. International Trade Commission says.

Obama underlined his emphasis on Asia in 2009 by advocating replacing the Group of Eight economic forum, whose only Asian member is Japan, with the G-20, which also includes China, South Korea, India and Indonesia, as the world’s key economic body.

State Dinners

Since then, three of Obama’s five White House state dinners have honored Asian leaders -- Chinese President Hu Jintao, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. He’s made a major Asia trip each year.

“For a very long time, Asia was a region that Americans associated with outsourcing and with cheap labor and cheaper products here at home,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.

With the growth of middle classes beyond Japan and China, in South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, “You’re going to increasingly see U.S. job growth supported by exports to these countries,” Rhodes said.

Obama thinks the U.S. has “an enormous stake” in the region’s future and wants to convey that “our economic growth at home is going to be tied directly to our ability to be competitive in these markets.”

Cooperate, Don’t ‘Collide’

“More is to be gained when great powers cooperate than when they collide,” Obama told students in Shanghai on Nov. 16, 2009. It was on that Asia trip, during the stop in Tokyo, that he declared himself “America’s first Pacific president.”

Speaking in the native tongue to a Jakarta crowd on Nov. 10, 2010, Obama said, “Indonesia is a part of me” and recalled running through fields with water buffalo and goats.

“A rising middle class here in Indonesia means new markets for our goods,” he said. “Emerging economies like Indonesia have a greater voice and also bear a greater responsibility for guiding the global economy.”

At a town hall event in Mumbai on Nov. 7, 2010, he described “a tug of war within the United States” between those threatened by globalization and those who accept a new global reality. For most of his life, he said, the U.S. was dominant enough to meet other countries “on our terms,” and now “we’ve got to negotiate this changing relationship.”

Saving Jobs

Obama brought South Korean President Lee to Detroit on Oct. 14 to a General Motors Co. plant to promote the trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea. Lee told the workers the trade deal “is going to protect your jobs.”

In an Oct. 11 speech, Obama said the sort of global envy once directed at the U.S. for the Hoover Dam is now being directed at the Chinese for the airport in Beijing.

“We can’t compete that way, playing for second or third or fourth or eighth or 15th place,” he said.

Obama’s Asia focus meshes with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, even as his domestic policies on taxes and spending often clash with the business community.

“Asia is the fastest-growing market in the world,” said chamber spokesman J.P. Fielder.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. should turn more resources to the region. In a piece on “America’s Pacific Century” for this month’s Foreign Policy magazine, Clinton wrote that a U.S. economic recovery “will depend on exports and the ability of American firms to tap into the vast and growing consumer base of Asia.” The U.S. also must be engaged in military and other issues important to the region, she said.

“In Asia, they ask whether we are really there to stay, whether we are likely to be distracted again by events elsewhere, whether we can make -- and keep -- credible economic and strategic commitments, and whether we can back those commitments with action,” Clinton wrote. “The answer is: We can, and we will.”

--With assistance from Alex Tanzi in Washington. Editors: John Walcott, Mark McQuillan.


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