SEOUL – Theodore Roosevelt, a great American president with a clearly
imperialist agenda, uttered one of the most famous lines in US history in 1901
when he advised a crowd, "Speak softly and carry a big stick". These days, US
President Barack Obama seems to have gotten that aphorism reversed. He speaks a
lot but doesn't seem to be carrying a big stick.
That was the impression he gave after winding up his 11-day Asian odyssey in
Japan at a tepid weekend gathering of Pacific rim leaders banded together in
the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping, otherwise known as APEC. It was
as though his whirlwind tour had reached a crescendo at the Group of 20 confab
in Seoul on Friday and, having no more to say, he just couldn't stop talking."
Obama, as the world has come to recognize, speaks quite well; he mingles homey
expressions and sardonic remarks in response
to journalists' skeptical questions. "Instead of hitting home runs, we're
hitting singles," he remarked, taking a phrase from American baseball that
Koreans and Japanese and Taiwanese at least might understand even if it seemed
a little esoteric to the Chinese, Indians and others in attendance. The
measures taken were "not revolutionary", he said, in another spasm of rhetoric.
"It's evolutionary progress."
Unfortunately, it was hard to see all that much progress in the blizzard of
words that piled up in several days of negotiations that did more to suggest
and highlight problems and differences than to do much about them.
The frustrations were most evident on Saturday and Sunday in Yokohama, where
Obama wound up his travels at the APEC summit. By the time the meeting ended,
skepticism if not cynicism had become the motif of the mission after reading
statements that were skillfully crafted to say a lot but actually did not say
all that much.
The final APEC statement was a masterpiece of obfuscation in which the group
assured the few who might still be interested of its commitment "to maintaining
open markets and fighting protectionism". Moreover, it said, "We reaffirm our
common resolve to support the recovery in a collaborative and coordinated way."
Then there was China's President Hu Jintao, as skilled as anyone at the table
in parrying demands for China to place a realistic value on its currency and
stop dumping cheap goods on world markets, notably the United States.
Unlike Obama, who specifically cited China's habit of depreciating the value of
its currency by large infusions of funds, Hu in Yokohama said simply that the
danger of protection was rising "notably" around the region. He did not have to
name the United States as the villain though lesser officials have not
hesitated to do so.
And, in a bow to all the talk about "global imbalances", a code term for
inequitable exchange rates, Hu said that the recovery from economic crisis had
not been "firmly established". Nor, he said, was it "balanced".
By the time Obama and Hu got to confront one another across the table yet again
at APEC, the day after the windup of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Seoul,
Obama had already lost the major battles of the whole trip. It was here that
his Asian odyssey reached a crescendo of excitement, and then disappointment.
First there was the disappointment of the failure to come to terms on a South
Korea-US Free Trade Agreement that was completed in the waning months of the
presidency of George W Bush but still needs ratification by the US Congress.
US Special Trade Representative Ron Kirk said after a long lunch discussion
between Obama and South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak that US officials still
were not happy about differences over the huge disparity in market access for
the American motor vehicle industry. "It became apparent that we weren't going
to resolve all of these in the remaining hours," he said, so Obama and Lee
"wisely made the decision" to go on with the talks over the coming weeks.
Korean experts were shocked, as were many foreign observers. "It's a big
disappointment we didn't get the FTA," said Jang Ha-sung, dean of business at
Korea University. "Korea has done much for its own share."
Jang said he had "no idea" on what issues the deal was stuck, and "they're not
revealing" the reasons, but US manufacturers cite a long list of standards,
requirements and taxes that discourage US imports.
As for the G-20 summit, Jang was sympathized with the Chinese view. While Obama
and others say China's central bank is intervening to maintain the Chinese yuan
at an artificially low rate, he noted that the dollar is going down in value
partly as a result of the Federal Reserve Bank's decision to buy US$600 billion
in Treasury bonds over the next seven months.
"Overall, the hard currency issue has surfaced" at the summit, he said, but
"the US view might be a problem."
Lee Chang-choon, a former Korean ambassador to a number of countries, was still
more critical. "Obama has been losing clout" since the congressional elections
in which the Republicans won an overwhelming majority in the House of
Representatives. "He is counting down to his last days."
Lee laughed at plans by his president to ballyhoo the summit as a great event
in modern Korean history. "The Lee government is making a continued press
campaign," he said. "They are so eager to celebrate the success of G-20. We are
living in a very strange period."
Chosun Ilbo, Korea's biggest-selling newspaper, adopted a skeptical view as
well. "Concrete agreements have been put off," said the paper. "For Korea as
the host, the results leave something to be desired."
The paper, in an editorial, questioned the G-20's real future. "It remains to
be seen whether the G-20 will truly become the world's top economic
decision-making body," it said, "because consensus about the economic crisis
and a sense of urgency among G-20 countries are diminishing."
While no one was paying much attention, the deliberations of the APEC leaders
did bring new initials to the fore.
Look out for FTAAP. That stands for "Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific",
though how to pronounce it as one word will be a problem. F-TAP, as someone
noted, has a ring about it that won't sound great on the evening news.
The idea, as APEC potentates all agreed, was to have one vast "free trade area"
that will unite the eastern with the western rims of the Pacific. Think of it.
Chile and Mexico and El Salvador and Honduras, not to mention the US and
Canada, all enjoying free trade with China and Japan and India and points in
"Now is the time for APEC to translate FTAAP from as aspirational to a more
concrete vision," they decided in Yokohama. "We instruct APEC to take concrete
steps toward realization of an FTAAP."
It might be a few years, or decades, too soon to expect that one to get very
far, but leaders in Yokohama did go home with one comforting thought. Most of
them privately agreed that the Doha round of World Trade Organization
negotiations is dead - that is, the grand illusion of breaking down trade
barriers that everyone meeting at Doha nine years ago hoped to turn into
reality will not do so.
As an Australian banker on the APEC Business Advisory Council remarked, "We've
moved past Doha."
But to where? Here's another set of initials mooted at Yokohama - TPP for
Trans-Pacific Partnership. That was one that even President Lee, basking in the
glory of having hosted G-20, could endorse. Its future was not clear, he said,
but South Korea might just sign on.
Could TPP serve as a substitute for KORUS - the Korea-US free trade pact - and
perhaps a device for curing global imbalances?
Optimism was not exactly rife, but be prepared to hearing those initials a lot
in the next few years of "currency wars" - a term that no self-respecting
leader uses but which in reality may continue to rage unabated after all the
talking is done.