Natural Resources Endure Shorter Recessionary Bust

Resource investors were not immune to the pain of the latest recession, but, for them, it was more like tearing off a Band-Aid than slowly peeling one away.

The S&P Global 1200, a stock index providing a reliable measure of worldwide equity markets, peaked on Oct. 31, 2007. We all know what happened next: financial crisis, fear and economic decline. The bottom for global equities, or at least what we hope was the bottom, arrived some 16 months later. Natural resources stocks took a similar plunge, but more rapidly. The S&P Global Natural Resources Index, comprising 60 of the largest energy, metals and agricultural product companies around the world, peaked on May 19, 2008, and hit bottom (we hope) on Nov. 20, 2008, a mere six months after the slide began.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which is generally regarded as an authority on U.S. recessions, says the United States entered recession in December 2007. Stock markets around the world gradually began to reflect this through lower prices, although recession wasn’t a foregone conclusion at the time. Even the NBER only makes an official announcement about the beginning of a recession long after it is under way.

Against this recessionary backdrop, resource stocks continued to climb well into 2008. Conventional wisdom tells us an approaching recession should have brought the opposite result. Resources stocks are cyclical, and economic weakness would ordinarily be a grave threat.

However, the effect was delayed for resources stocks because crude oil prices steadily rose throughout 2007 and the first half of 2008. Oil and gas prices heavily impact most natural resources stock funds (and indices) because the energy sector typically accounts for about two-thirds of these funds and benchmarks.

The reasons for oil’s price spike in 2008 were heavily debated, probably because of the anger it generated – recall your frustration at the pump as gasoline approached $5 per gallon. Some believed the prices resulted from high demand or expected future demand from the fast-growing Chinese and Indian economies. Others pointed to supply disruptions in Nigeria and Iraq or speculative investment in oil futures. The Organziation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was blamed for restraining its production levels in an effort to keep prices high and maintain profit margins trimmed by a declining U.S. dollar.

In reality, oil prices were probably high because of some combination of these factors and a growing consensus that long-term demand growth was going to outpace capacity. Whatever theory you accept, the fact is that oil prices were elevated, propping up resources stocks long after recession expectations had taken hold.

Crude oil peaked at more than $147 per barrel during trading on July 11, 2008, before plunging to under $31 on Dec. 22, 2008. Natural gas peaked at around the same time and suffered a decline almost as spectacular. Not surprisingly, natural resources stock portfolios heavily invested in companies locating, extracting and producing these resources went for a ride as well. The S&P Global Natural Resources Index lost 57 percent, peak to trough, over a stretch lasting 185 days.

By comparison, the S&P Global 1200 shed 59.2 percent, peak to trough. It took 495 days.

From December 2007 through the first quarter of 2010, a period covering the entire recession and part of the subsequent recovery, resources stocks actually performed better than global equities, as measured by the S&P indices. Excluding dividends, global equities declined 25.1 percent, while resources declined 20.7 percent. Part of the disparity may result from differences in the sizes of the companies in the two indices. The Global Natural Resources Index contains larger companies than the Global 1200 index, and thus may be less volatile. The strong showing for resources was nonetheless surprising, and occurred despite a complete lack of price recovery in natural gas, where innovation in drilling techniques over the last decade has expanded potential supply and alleviated long-term scarcity concerns.

Cyclical stocks such as resources generally exaggerate the market’s movements, but this was not true of resources stocks during the recession. Resources stocks lived up to their reputation of fierce swings, but did not surpass the losses experienced by global equities. Further, when pessimism and panic finally gave way to rationality, and the world’s major stock markets slowly rebounded, resources began their ascent several months before global equities did.

What kept resources from experiencing a longer and deeper bust?

While large swaths of the Western world were dealing with negative gross domestic product, some resource-hungry developing nations were still growing – and quickly.

China, second in energy consumption only to the United States, managed more than 9 percent GDP growth in 2008 and close to 9.5 percent in 2009. Even in the depths of the recession in the early quarters of 2009, China’s economy was growing at a rate greater than 6 percent.

Within weeks of the resources bottom, China unveiled a $586 billion economic stimulus program ramping up spending on housing, infrastructure, agriculture, health care and social welfare. It was designed to prop up demand and keep China’s economy growing at a high single-digit rate.

The program was good news for resources. Fast-growing economies burn through significantly more resources; they need materials to build factories and energy to power machines. The government was routing yuan directly to housing and infrastructure, two of the most resource-intensive sectors. The spending also supplied the expanding middle class with better jobs and increased payments from social safety nets. This meant more citizens with the ability to afford housing, or to move to better housing, and more materials and energy required in the future to build homes and keep the lights on.

The Chinese economy wasn’t alone in maintaining robust growth during the global recession. India’s economy grew at 7.4 percent in 2008 and 6.1 percent in 2009. Back-to-back fiscal stimulus packages in December 2008 and January 2009, aimed at dampening the effect of the global slowdown, boosted infrastructure and real estate spending.

Inflation expectations were also in natural resources’ corner. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 authorized the U.S. Treasury to spend up to $700 billion to help ailing financial institutions. Governments across Europe followed suit with similar but smaller pledges to support their banking systems. The next year, the United States was back on its spending spree, with a $787 billion fiscal stimulus to kick-start the slowing economy. Fears of surging government debt in the United States and Europe led investors to seek hard assets to protect their purchasing power. Gold prices actually increased in 2008, a year in which double-digit commodity price declines were standard, and many price declines approached or exceeded 50 percent.

As precipitous as the decline was for resources stocks during the recession, it could have been worse. The Morgan Stanley Cyclical Index, a 30-stock sample from economically sensitive industries such as automobiles, chemicals and machinery, declined roughly 74 percent between its peak and trough closing prices.

Factors such as continued economic growth in developing Asia, stimulus plans geared toward “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects, and inflation expectations likely offset the cyclicality of resources stocks during the recession. The biggest difference between the performance of natural resources stocks and the stock market as a whole was not really overall performance, but the timing and length of decline. The fall of resources stocks was more compressed and more dramatic. It wasn’t as drawn-out, but that didn’t make it any less painful for investors.

China plus ASEAN plus FTA equals East Asian Unification? Not Quite Part II

As discussed in Part I of this series, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) will be a win-win for the signatories. The agreement will produce greater economies of scales, as it expands trade between members, which will result in an aggregate increase in competitive export products from China and ASEAN. However, it will not foreshadow European-style regional integration, at least not in the near future. The centrifugal force generated by the agreement will not only draw ASEAN closer to China, the regions manufacturing hub, but it will push those states outside the bloc to liberalize their own trade in order to stay competitive. While the United States is generally supportive of ASEAN, it is not in the strategic interest of the U.S. for it to be outside of an Asian economic bloc, especially one that will aid in cementing a strong Chinese leadership position in Southeast Asia. Implementation of this agreement has increased concerns among some analysts that the economic and perhaps, the political center of gravity of the region are shifting away from the United States and toward China.

Over the last 10 years, Southeast Asia has received approximately US$90 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI); it is the third largest market for U.S. exports; and U.S.-ASEAN trade is over US$140 billion (Pitsuwan 2008). Southeast Asia is flush with agricultural and natural resources, and is home to more than half of the world’s annual merchant shipping traffic. Intraregional trade between ASEAN nations still hovers at 25% and in East Asia, it now verges on 55% (Pitsuwan 2008). Over 80% of Japanese and Chinese oil imports travel through these sea-lanes. The geopolitical reality is that due to proximity and economic clout, China’s access to this region will increase. This could not only be detrimental to America’s economic interests, but also represent a strategic threat.

It is in America and ASEANs best interest for the U.S. to not only promote further ASEAN integration, but also establish stronger ties with the region. This will enable ASEAN to serve as a fulcrum between China (and India). America must also realize that China’s increasing penetration into Southeast Asia is not a zero-sum game; the U.S. must be prepared to have a constructive working relationship with China in the region. If the America hopes to balance China’s growing influence it will need a rapprochement with ASEAN that displays a cohesive policy for the organization, but at the same time exploit the diversity of opinion within ASEAN. This will allow the U.S. to advance its policy goals in the region.

China

Over the last decade, China’s resurgent role in Southeast Asia has moved from a situation that generated fear in the region, to one where China is seen as a benign regional leader that plays a constructive role in creating opportunity. China has worked hard to market this image while participating in regional institutions. Its long-term goals are to create greater interdependencies between itself and Southeast Asia through economic incentives, which will give ASEAN a strong stake in China’s success. In this way, ASEAN can serve as insurance against possible U.S., Japanese, Indian containment in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. At the same time, Beijing hopes it can simultaneously reduce the influence of the United States in the South China Sea.

China is increasing its political reach in the region through a series of strong bilateral ties with ASEAN member-states. These links include increased cooperation in regional security (including providing military training), scholarships, and helping to facilitate conflict resolution in the region. China has also promised over US$10 billion in infrastructure, energy, and cultural programs between the countries. China has especially provided special assistance to the lesser developed states of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

During the 1997 Asian financial Crisis, America did not provide significant leadership, which left room for China advance itself as a regional leader, often at the expense of Japan. China promised not to devalue its currency, the Renminbi, which helped return stability to the markets, a move much praised in the region. Tokyo worked to provide a competitive framework for an Asian Monetary fund, in an effort to engender long-term stability. Washington repeatedly blocked this endeavor, out of fear it would be froze-out by a potential Asian bloc. Japan and China are still pushing their competing ideas of a greater-East Asia economic sphere, but the main difference between the two nations is that Japan wishes to include Australia, New Zealand, and India in an attempt to minimize the influence of China. Obviously, China is not interested in having none ASEAN and East Asian nations involved.

The idea for an Asian Monetary Fund did not die. In February 2008, the ASEAN+3 forum in Thailand agreed to expand bilateral currency swaps and also enlarge the Chiang Mai Initiative reserve fund in order to enhance regional economic stability in the wake of the current global financial crisis. This goal has prompted ASEAN+3, in coordination with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), to develop an Asian Currency Unit (ACU) as part of a comprehensive Asian Monetary Fund. China has promoted the idea, which has gained wide regional support. China championing this effort appears surprising considering past objections; however, Beijing is supportive of the ACU because it is now able to take a greater leadership role in its management than Japan, whereas it was not in a position to do so 10 years earlier. Although meant to be non-tradable, the ACU would be an indicator of the stability of participating currencies in the region, an Asian version of the European Currency Unit, which was the precursor to the Euro. Due to the wide variance in levels of economic development, the sophistication of financial transfer systems, and the levels of nationalism in the Pacific Rim, a single currency for the region is still unlikely.

What ASEAN Needs

Western analyst had long criticized and even dismissed ASEAN; the common narrative characterized the organization as soft on human rights and democracy, and therefore incapable of taking decisive and constructive action concerning regional issues that were important to the West. Some pasts areas of conflict involved human rights in Myanmar and East Timor, as well as issues of democracy in key members states like Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Part of the problem is that Western observers have not tended to judge ASEAN on its own merit, but instead, based on how it compares to the contemporary European Union (EU). As a result, ASEAN has never been fully respected by the United States.

For their part, not all ASEAN members have been eager to see a stronger American presence in the region. In the 1990’s, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called for a greater East Asian forum, which would exclude the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Many in the region termed this the “caucus without Caucasians”, something Washington successfully nixed, but to only see it rebooted a decade later as ASEAN+3.

At the time, the exclusion of Western nations reflected the regional vogue of “Asian Values”, an ideology trumpeted by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, along with some political thinkers in Japan. Those who adhered to this ideology espoused that all Asians share distinctive cultural traits that make them fundamentally different from Westerners; therefore, Western political and social norms were not entirely appropriate for Asian societies. Some of these shared Asian values are a preference for social harmony, government paternalism, collectivism over the rights of individuals, respect toward authority, and a greater concern for socio-economic stability over human rights.

By the turn of the century, deeply pragmatic ASEAN states came to the realization that it was impossible to push Western powers out of the region, so it began what was termed, “constructive engagement” with all of them. Under this policy, ASEAN intends to hedge its relationship with the larger powers (China, India, America, and Australia) as an intermediary, reaping the benefits for its member states. Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo, speaking for ASEAN to the press in November 2007, described the importance of America to Southeast Asia: “In short, no major strategic issue in Asia can be resolved without the active participation of the U.S” (Marciel 2008).

America’s Next Move

In the aftermath of 9-11, the bulk of Washington’s foreign policy capacity was consumed by wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Major initiatives in Southeast Asia fell by the wayside as the primary focus moved to counterterrorism and other security concerns. Even when America’s focus broadened beyond the “War on Terror” into issues of trade, its approach was often ineffectual. The U.S. cannot afford to squander another decade in the region teetering between security issues and weak trade.

The 2005, Joint Vision Statement on the ASEAN-U.S. Enhanced Partnership was not enough to secure America’s future in Southeast Asia; Washington needs to define, create, and utilize more avenues of regular dialogue between itself and ASEAN. Although the U.S. and ASEAN have enjoyed relations for 30 years, no regular annual summits have ever been established. Shoring up the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) is a good place to begin, but it should only be a pass-through for more specialized U.S.-ASEAN talks. The current lack of contact hurts America’s ability to focus its attention on ASEAN states. The U.S. should encourage East/Southeast Asian integration, because it will help to socialize and constrain provocative movements by China. It may also encourage American investors to do greater business in the region, as the various types of independent national laws and regulations are streamlined. Nevertheless, America should also exploit areas of friction between ASEAN and China, as well as the lack of cohesion within ASEAN.

Although China has achieved strong ties with certain members of ASEAN, many nations in the region, such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam still maintain a healthy fear of Chinese hegemony and anti-Chinese sentiment in their populations has not yet abated. There have been complaints, by some ASEAN members, that China pushed bilateral FTA negotiations to isolate nations that were not very pro-China, such as Malaysia and Vietnam. Southeast Asian diplomats have also grumbled that China’s influence has hindered consensus building within ASEAN as member nations try to gage Beijing’s potential reaction.

The U.S. has also not closely engaged China-friendly states, such as Myanmar and Cambodia. This is especially true in the case of Myanmar due to human rights concerns, which have resulted in embargoes that have resulted in little political change. The U.S. needs a more pragmatic approach. These nations would be very receptive to American competition for their attention.

The United States and Japan remain the largest investors in the region and the largest ASEAN export receivers. China is not close to eclipsing the U.S. in hard power projection and America is still the largest source of popular culture. With respect to trade, some ASEAN members are not pleased that Early Harvest has allowed China to compete in raw materials, agricultural products, and minerals it did not produce, whereas China will eventually have lower tariff free access to manufacturing markets that ASEAN and Chinese firms were already competing in.

The U.S. has much more work to do on the free trade front. Thus far, America has only one FTA completed agreements, in the nearly 15 years since the U.S. initiated its first Asia-Pacific TIFA, with Singapore in 1991. There are stalled negotiations for FTAs with Thailand and Malaysia, and the Philippines and Indonesia have expressed interest in FTAs. Besides FTAs, policymakers have other eco­nomically significant agreements available, including the expansion of trade and investment framework agree­ments (TIFA) and open skies agreements (OSA). A TIFA is a consultative mechanism for the United States to discuss trade issues, and an OSA creates free markets for aviation services. America has TIFAs with ASEAN, but TIFAs and OSAs have been severely underutilized. Unlike China, the U.S. should work as multilateral as possible with ASEAN to avoid the negative effects of export diversion and encourage ASEAN unity.

Long term, the U.S. could do more in advancing the scope of FTAs and OSAs in Asia. A region-wide agreement would better reduce regional trade barriers, increase U.S.-ASEAN trade, and advance American security interests. The U.S. must stop blocking Japan’s attempts to project a competing vision of Asian unity, because it has not worked. The only result is Japan losing influence to China, which is not in Japan or America’s national interests. Instead, Washington can work with Japan to promote shared interests inside the ASEAN+3 framework, where Japan can serve as a U.S. proxy on specific issues critical to both nations. This would be a similar relationship to what the U.S. enjoys with Britain with respect to the European Union. Currently, Northeast Asia’s economic heavyweights are the world’s last remaining region that lacks an inter-governmental trade bloc, such as ASEAN. The U.S. does not want to find itself outside such a teaming, so it should be working with Japan to create one that is more inclusive. Even if FTAs are not politically feasible, the US should focus on TIFAs for high priority areas of interest.

Lastly, the U.S. should do what it must to gain Japan’s assistance in fighting any attempts for an tradable ACU, because that could limit U.S. government’s ability to finance its larger budget deficits at relatively low interest.

Notes:

As discussed in Part I of this series, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) will be a win-win for the signatories. The agreement will produce greater economies of scales, as it expands trade between members, which will result in an aggregate increase in competitive export products from China and ASEAN. However, it will not foreshadow European-style regional integration, at least not in the near future. The centrifugal force generated by the agreement will not only draw ASEAN closer to China, the regions manufacturing hub, but it will push those states outside the bloc to liberalize their own trade in order to stay competitive. While the United States is generally supportive of ASEAN, it is not in the strategic interest of the U.S. for it to be outside of an Asian economic bloc, especially one that will aid in cementing a strong Chinese leadership position in Southeast Asia. Implementation of this agreement has increased concerns among some analysts that the economic and perhaps, the political center of gravity of the region are shifting away from the United States and toward China.

Over the last 10 years, Southeast Asia has received approximately US$90 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI); it is the third largest market for U.S. exports; and U.S.-ASEAN trade is over US$140 billion (Pitsuwan 2008). Southeast Asia is flush with agricultural and natural resources, and is home to more than half of the world’s annual merchant shipping traffic. Intraregional trade between ASEAN nations still hovers at 25% and in East Asia, it now verges on 55% (Pitsuwan 2008). Over 80% of Japanese and Chinese oil imports travel through these sea-lanes. The geopolitical reality is that due to proximity and economic clout, China’s access to this region will increase. This could not only be detrimental to America’s economic interests, but also represent a strategic threat.

It is in America and ASEANs best interest for the U.S. to not only promote further ASEAN integration, but also establish stronger ties with the region. This will enable ASEAN to serve as a fulcrum between China (and India). America must also realize that China’s increasing penetration into Southeast Asia is not a zero-sum game; the U.S. must be prepared to have a constructive working relationship with China in the region. If the America hopes to balance China’s growing influence it will need a rapprochement with ASEAN that displays a cohesive policy for the organization, but at the same time exploit the diversity of opinion within ASEAN. This will allow the U.S. to advance its policy goals in the region.

China

Over the last decade, China’s resurgent role in Southeast Asia has moved from a situation that generated fear in the region, to one where China is seen as a benign regional leader that plays a constructive role in creating opportunity. China has worked hard to market this image while participating in regional institutions. Its long-term goals are to create greater interdependencies between itself and Southeast Asia through economic incentives, which will give ASEAN a strong stake in China’s success. In this way, ASEAN can serve as insurance against possible U.S., Japanese, Indian containment in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. At the same time, Beijing hopes it can simultaneously reduce the influence of the United States in the South China Sea.

China is increasing its political reach in the region through a series of strong bilateral ties with ASEAN member-states. These links include increased cooperation in regional security (including providing military training), scholarships, and helping to facilitate conflict resolution in the region. China has also promised over US$10 billion in infrastructure, energy, and cultural programs between the countries. China has especially provided special assistance to the lesser developed states of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

During the 1997 Asian financial Crisis, America did not provide significant leadership, which left room for China advance itself as a regional leader, often at the expense of Japan. China promised not to devalue its currency, the Renminbi, which helped return stability to the markets, a move much praised in the region. Tokyo worked to provide a competitive framework for an Asian Monetary fund, in an effort to engender long-term stability. Washington repeatedly blocked this endeavor, out of fear it would be froze-out by a potential Asian bloc. Japan and China are still pushing their competing ideas of a greater-East Asia economic sphere, but the main difference between the two nations is that Japan wishes to include Australia, New Zealand, and India in an attempt to minimize the influence of China. Obviously, China is not interested in having none ASEAN and East Asian nations involved.

The idea for an Asian Monetary Fund did not die. In February 2008, the ASEAN+3 forum in Thailand agreed to expand bilateral currency swaps and also enlarge the Chiang Mai Initiative reserve fund in order to enhance regional economic stability in the wake of the current global financial crisis. This goal has prompted ASEAN+3, in coordination with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), to develop an Asian Currency Unit (ACU) as part of a comprehensive Asian Monetary Fund. China has promoted the idea, which has gained wide regional support. China championing this effort appears surprising considering past objections; however, Beijing is supportive of the ACU because it is now able to take a greater leadership role in its management than Japan, whereas it was not in a position to do so 10 years earlier. Although meant to be non-tradable, the ACU would be an indicator of the stability of participating currencies in the region, an Asian version of the European Currency Unit, which was the precursor to the Euro. Due to the wide variance in levels of economic development, the sophistication of financial transfer systems, and the levels of nationalism in the Pacific Rim, a single currency for the region is still unlikely.

What ASEAN Needs

Western analyst had long criticized and even dismissed ASEAN; the common narrative characterized the organization as soft on human rights and democracy, and therefore incapable of taking decisive and constructive action concerning regional issues that were important to the West. Some pasts areas of conflict involved human rights in Myanmar and East Timor, as well as issues of democracy in key members states like Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Part of the problem is that Western observers have not tended to judge ASEAN on its own merit, but instead, based on how it compares to the contemporary European Union (EU). As a result, ASEAN has never been fully respected by the United States.

For their part, not all ASEAN members have been eager to see a stronger American presence in the region. In the 1990’s, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called for a greater East Asian forum, which would exclude the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Many in the region termed this the “caucus without Caucasians”, something Washington successfully nixed, but to only see it rebooted a decade later as ASEAN+3.

At the time, the exclusion of Western nations reflected the regional vogue of “Asian Values”, an ideology trumpeted by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, along with some political thinkers in Japan. Those who adhered to this ideology espoused that all Asians share distinctive cultural traits that make them fundamentally different from Westerners; therefore, Western political and social norms were not entirely appropriate for Asian societies. Some of these shared Asian values are a preference for social harmony, government paternalism, collectivism over the rights of individuals, respect toward authority, and a greater concern for socio-economic stability over human rights.

By the turn of the century, deeply pragmatic ASEAN states came to the realization that it was impossible to push Western powers out of the region, so it began what was termed, “constructive engagement” with all of them. Under this policy, ASEAN intends to hedge its relationship with the larger powers (China, India, America, and Australia) as an intermediary, reaping the benefits for its member states. Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo, speaking for ASEAN to the press in November 2007, described the importance of America to Southeast Asia: “In short, no major strategic issue in Asia can be resolved without the active participation of the U.S” (Marciel 2008).

America’s Next Move

In the aftermath of 9-11, the bulk of Washington’s foreign policy capacity was consumed by wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Major initiatives in Southeast Asia fell by the wayside as the primary focus moved to counterterrorism and other security concerns. Even when America’s focus broadened beyond the “War on Terror” into issues of trade, its approach was often ineffectual. The U.S. cannot afford to squander another decade in the region teetering between security issues and weak trade.

The 2005, Joint Vision Statement on the ASEAN-U.S. Enhanced Partnership was not enough to secure America’s future in Southeast Asia; Washington needs to define, create, and utilize more avenues of regular dialogue between itself and ASEAN. Although the U.S. and ASEAN have enjoyed relations for 30 years, no regular annual summits have ever been established. Shoring up the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) is a good place to begin, but it should only be a pass-through for more specialized U.S.-ASEAN talks. The current lack of contact hurts America’s ability to focus its attention on ASEAN states. The U.S. should encourage East/Southeast Asian integration, because it will help to socialize and constrain provocative movements by China. It may also encourage American investors to do greater business in the region, as the various types of independent national laws and regulations are streamlined. Nevertheless, America should also exploit areas of friction between ASEAN and China, as well as the lack of cohesion within ASEAN.

Although China has achieved strong ties with certain members of ASEAN, many nations in the region, such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam still maintain a healthy fear of Chinese hegemony and anti-Chinese sentiment in their populations has not yet abated. There have been complaints, by some ASEAN members, that China pushed bilateral FTA negotiations to isolate nations that were not very pro-China, such as Malaysia and Vietnam. Southeast Asian diplomats have also grumbled that China’s influence has hindered consensus building within ASEAN as member nations try to gage Beijing’s potential reaction.

The U.S. has also not closely engaged China-friendly states, such as Myanmar and Cambodia. This is especially true in the case of Myanmar due to human rights concerns, which have resulted in embargoes that have resulted in little political change. The U.S. needs a more pragmatic approach. These nations would be very receptive to American competition for their attention.

The United States and Japan remain the largest investors in the region and the largest ASEAN export receivers. China is not close to eclipsing the U.S. in hard power projection and America is still the largest source of popular culture. With respect to trade, some ASEAN members are not pleased that Early Harvest has allowed China to compete in raw materials, agricultural products, and minerals it did not produce, whereas China will eventually have lower tariff free access to manufacturing markets that ASEAN and Chinese firms were already competing in.

The U.S. has much more work to do on the free trade front. Thus far, America has only one FTA completed agreements, in the nearly 15 years since the U.S. initiated its first Asia-Pacific TIFA, with Singapore in 1991. There are stalled negotiations for FTAs with Thailand and Malaysia, and the Philippines and Indonesia have expressed interest in FTAs. Besides FTAs, policymakers have other eco­nomically significant agreements available, including the expansion of trade and investment framework agree­ments (TIFA) and open skies agreements (OSA). A TIFA is a consultative mechanism for the United States to discuss trade issues, and an OSA creates free markets for aviation services. America has TIFAs with ASEAN, but TIFAs and OSAs have been severely underutilized. Unlike China, the U.S. should work as multilateral as possible with ASEAN to avoid the negative effects of export diversion and encourage ASEAN unity.

Long term, the U.S. could do more in advancing the scope of FTAs and OSAs in Asia. A region-wide agreement would better reduce regional trade barriers, increase U.S.-ASEAN trade, and advance American security interests. The U.S. must stop blocking Japan’s attempts to project a competing vision of Asian unity, because it has not worked. The only result is Japan losing influence to China, which is not in Japan or America’s national interests. Instead, Washington can work with Japan to promote shared interests inside the ASEAN+3 framework, where Japan can serve as a U.S. proxy on specific issues critical to both nations. This would be a similar relationship to what the U.S. enjoys with Britain with respect to the European Union. Currently, Northeast Asia’s economic heavyweights are the world’s last remaining region that lacks an inter-governmental trade bloc, such as ASEAN. The U.S. does not want to find itself outside such a teaming, so it should be working with Japan to create one that is more inclusive. Even if FTAs are not politically feasible, the US should focus on TIFAs for high priority areas of interest.

Lastly, the U.S. should do what it must to gain Japan’s assistance in fighting any attempts for an tradable ACU, because that could limit U.S. government’s ability to finance its larger budget deficits at relatively low interest.

Notes:

Pitsuwan, Surin. 2008. “Bolstering U.S.-ASEAN Cooperation”

Japan Times Online.

Marciel, Scot A. 2008. “Remarks to Center o Strategic International Studies Meeting

‘U.S. and Southeast Asia: Toward a Strategy for Enhanced Engagement'”

U.S. State Department.

A Moderate’s View of President Obama

The vast majority of Americans are proud to have elected President Obama, our first black Chief of State. We are proud to demonstrate to the world and our own fellow citizens that race no longer matters in our society. We have put race, ethnicity, national origin, and gender behind us and (theoretically) every American can do whatever they rise to the challenge to do – without barriers. We have a much better “face” to the rest of the world that we are not the superior people of a high and mighty superpower but equals when it comes to justice and democracy throughout the world. Let’s face it — George W. Bush alienated much of the world by not seeking international support and consensus for actions he undertook.

Former President Jimmy Carter is dead wrong in his assessment that the attacks on President Obama’s political agenda are race inspired. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there will always be small fringe groups on the right or left but these are out of the mainstream. Carter’s outrageous suggestion really tells how far out of reality he has wandered.

We all agree that President Obama inherited the greatest financial disaster since The Great Depression. The financial markets’ bailout started under the Bush administration, as did planning for The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But mainstream Americans are scared to death of the trillions of dollars of debt that are being added to the national debt – ultimately impacting the quality of life of your children and grandchildren in the long-term and to each of us in the short term, as the value of the US dollar has nowhere to go but down when compared to currencies of governments operating under fiscal restraints. If John McCain had been elected, we could very well have this same sickening feeling of the country’s financial mess we are leaving for our posterity. And healthcare? Nearly everyone agrees it is out of control and consuming much too much of our money with it’s runaway costs. We don’t want Cigna making life decisions any more than the so-called death panels, which these insurance oligopolies currently do. The only argument is how are we going to pay for it and will it really improve if the government gets its sticky fingers in it?

The real issue is a strong distrust of all politicians by mainstream Americans. Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians are all at or near the bottom of those we trust, right behind used car salesmen. Most politicians are on par with the corporate executives who at critical times in their company’s history – at key decision points – chose what made them look and feel good over the needs of the corporation and its shareholders. We see the same thing in politicians. What will get me re-elected. What pork barrel projects – whether good for the country or not – will make my constituents indebted to me to keep me in office.

Americans are angry and stressed out over the housing, financial, and jobs crisis. We do not want to see the decline of the country as the world leader, because of bad corporate and political self-serving decisions. We want our dollar to be worth something in the future and not stick our children and grandchildren with the mistakes – read massive debt – of today. Government (politicians) and corporations must work hard to regain the trust of the American people to get us back on solid economic and political ground.