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Democrats resist Obama's Asia overture

| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 8:12 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Obama's Asia policy took a hit last week, and it was from a member of his own party.

The top Democratic senator, Harry Reid, announced that he opposes legislation that's key for a trans-Pacific trade pact that is arguably the most important part of Obama's effort to strengthen American engagement in Asia.

Since Obama rolled out the policy, most attention has been on the military aspect, largely because it was described as a rebalance in American priorities after a decade of costly war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But officials have increasingly stressed that Obama's foreign policy “pivot” to Asia is about more than cementing America's stature as the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific as China grows in strength. It's about capitalizing on the region's rapid economic growth.

That's the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious free trade agreement being negotiated by 12 nations, including Japan, that account for about 40 percent of global gross domestic product.

“The pivot is the TPP right now,” Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, told a conference at a Washington think tank last week on policy and the outlook for Asia in 2014.

The Obama administration's Asia policy has been welcomed by countries wary of China's rise and expansive territorial claims. During the president's first term, the United States made progress in strengthening old alliances with nations such as the Philippines, forging deeper ties with Indonesia and Vietnam and befriending former pariah state Myanmar.

There were missteps. Angry politics at home forced Obama to withdraw from the East Asia Summit last fall, raising some questions about his commitment to the region. New military deployments in the Asia-Pacific have fueled Chinese accusations of a policy of containment while making little impact on regional security.

Asia got little mention in Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, adding to perceptions in some quarters that the pivot has dropped in the administration's policy agenda in the president's second term.

But he urged Congress to approve fast-track legislation needed to make the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a trade deal under negotiation with Europe a reality, saying it would open markets and add American jobs.

The problem for Obama is that many fellow Democrats oppose fast-track authority, which would require Congress to act on the trade deals negotiated by the administration by a yes-or-no vote, with no ability to make changes.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, said Wednesday that he opposes fast-track authority and that lawmakers should not push for it now — a comment suggesting that legislation introduced three weeks ago will go nowhere soon.

While that legislation is co-sponsored by a senior Democrat — Obama's nominee to become the next ambassador to China, Sen. Max Baucus — many in the party join with labor unions in opposing lowered trade barriers, which they worry will cost jobs because of increased competition.

Matthew Pennington covers U.S.-Asian affairs for The Associated Press in Washington.

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