Obama urges more ASEAN countries to join pact
CK TAN, Nikkei staff writer
KUALA LUMPUR -- As the U.S. tries to contain China's maritime ambitions and play a bigger role in Asia, President Barack Obama on Saturday essentially asked more Southeast Asian nations to make things easier on Uncle Sam -- by joining the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Addressing businesspeople from the region during his second visit to the Malaysian capital, Obama said Southeast Asian economies, which are highly dependent on trade, may stand to lose if they do not join the U.S.-led TPP.
"If a country -- including other [Southeast Asian] countries -- [is] prepared to meet its high standards, that's a conversation worth having," Obama said referring to the TPP, which is being touted as a comprehensive free trade deal.
Lawmakers in the 12 TPP member countries are just beginning to study the text of the recently hammered-out agreement. The pact was six years in the making, and legislatures could start ratifying it early next year. Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are among the 12. Recently, Indonesia and the Philippines have expressed interest in the TPP, while Thailand is reportedly considering it.
Obama told his audience the TPP sets such high standards that member countries could have an edge in future trade negotiations and a bigger say in shaping the global economy.
"Countries will have a choice: reform and modernize, or risk getting left behind," he said.
As the U.S. deepens its partnerships with countries in the region through the TPP, it will also seek to "uphold the freedom of navigation" and ensure that disputes are resolved peacefully.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims over parts of the South China Sea, where China has been building entire islands. Tensions are high, and recently the U.S. sent a naval ship within 12 nautical miles of those artificial reefs.
Obama said the TPP would also bring about "important strategic and geopolitical benefits" to its members. By luring other Southeast Asian countries not yet in the deal, the U.S. appears to be recruiting more allies as it and China try to widen their spheres of influence.
Obama was here during the 27th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which concludes Sunday. Leaders from the regional bloc are expected to usher in the ASEAN Economic Community during their second day of meetings. The AEC is envisaged as a single market in which goods, investment and talent are unhindered by borders, tariffs and other barriers. Besides the U.S., seven other so-called "dialog" partners are on hand, including China and India.