Fresh off his election victory, US President Barack Obama announced that he would visit Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia later this month, en route to the East Asian Summit that takes place later in Cambodia. This represents a major commitment of time and prestige for President Obama, and it is a positive start to the annual “American” season here in Southeast Asia, which will end around the time of the US Thanksgiving holiday on November 22.
I agree that this is a major positive development for US-ASEAN relations, but I hope that the visit is accompanied by substantive steps in economic policy as well. I have a few items on my personal wish list, with varying likelihoods of coming into fruition:
- Reduce Burma sanctions to the minimum level necessary. US Secretary of State Clinton has already announced that the Obama administration wants to do this, but it will require new legislation and/or approval from the US Congress. Under existing US Burma sanctions legislation, President Obama could end the import ban and asset freeze “upon request of a democratically elected government in Burma” and when conditions in the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act regarding progress on human rights, release of all political prisoners, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of association, peaceful exercise of religion, democratic governance, country not designated as “a country of interest” for narcotics trafficking—have been met. I don’t think the Obama administration is prepared to do that. But given the weakened condition of the Republican opposition, this might be the opportunity to propose new legislation that would end the import ban but establish clear tripwires that would result in the resumption of the ban and other sanctions. This would align US sanctions with those of the EU, which has much greater administrative flexibility with its Burma sanctions. Coupled with a revision to the US sanctions blacklist to narcotics-related persons only, this would allow US investors to help the Burmese people recover from their years of isolation.
- Request trade promotion authority (TPA). President Obama has negotiated FTAs such as the Trans Pacific Partnership without TPA, which allows him to negotiate with delegated authority from the US Congress. All successfully concluded FTAs have been done with TPA. This is necessary in the US because the Congress has primary authority over trade legislation. Without TPA, the Congress could rewrite any trade agreements in the US implementing legislation. TPA would reassure US trading partners in the TPP talks that this would not happen, and it would help alleviate continuing congressional complaints about the negotiating process (by effectively co-opting them).
- Implement the APEC Travel Card. The card allows businesspeople to travel within the APEC region on an expedited basis. Other APEC members currently use this process, but US citizens have been unable to participate fully in this program, nor have other APEC members’ citizens been able to use the card for travel to the US. The legislation has been passed, but implementing regulations have been indefinitely stalled within the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). President Obama should announce that he will direct DHS to implement the APEC travel card within the next few months
- Start double taxation agreement (DTA) talks with Singapore. I have been hearing about the need for a DTA since I first moved to Singapore 15 years ago, and not much has happened. A DTA would ensure that US companies’ investments in Singapore will not be devalued by changes in Singaporean tax policy. Singapore, having signed off on tax cooperation agreements with the EU, will be willing to do this now with the US, which was a sticking point in the past. The DTA would square the circle in US-Singapore economic relations formed by the US-Singapore FTA.
By taking these and similar steps, President Obama could demonstrate that the US “pivot” to Asia is broader than security, and encompasses economic and social ties as well. President Obama now has an additional four years to lock in his legacy in Asia and ensure that the US will continue to support regional peace and security in the region.