- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2014

President Obama encountered more opposition Sunday to his centerpiece Pacific Rim free-trade deal, a pact that he failed to bring across the finish line as he nears the end of his weeklong tour of Asia.

Protesters in Malaysia demonstrated against the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) out of concern that it will increase the costs of medical supplies in the Southeast Asian country. The protest prompted Mr. Obama to deny publicly that his administration is “bullying” the Malaysian government to join the pact.

“You shouldn’t be surprised if there are going to be objections, protests, rumors, conspiracy theories, political aggravation around a trade deal,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur. “That’s true in Malaysia; it’s true in Tokyo; it’s true in Seoul; it’s true in the United States of America — and it’s true in the Democratic Party.”

The president’s defense of his long-sought trade deal came as he neared the completion of a trip that featured no major policy breakthroughs and was often overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine. The White House said Sunday that the U.S. and its allies will impose new sanctions as early as Monday on the political allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the firms they control, in response to the continued belligerence of pro-Moscow militants in Ukraine.

Mr. Obama told reporters, “We’re going to be in a stronger position to deter Putin when he sees that the world is unified and the United States and Europe is unified rather than this is just a U.S.-Russian conflict.”

Administration officials on Sunday did have one achievement to note, completing an agreement with the Philippines, where Mr. Obama arrives on Monday, to give the U.S. military greater access to bases across the country.

Under a new 10-year agreement set to be signed Monday, American forces will have temporary access to selected military camps and the ability to preposition fighter jets and ships. The agreement to be signed in conjunction with Mr. Obama’s visit is viewed as an effort by Washington to counter Chinese aggression in the region.

But the trade deal was the biggest unrealized goal of Mr. Obama’s trip, in which he sought to reassure allies that his administration is committed to the region as a counterbalance to China. Analysts said negotiating partners in the TPP are well aware of vehement opposition to the trade pact among liberal Democrats in Congress, who have opposed granting Mr. Obama the so-called “fast-track” authority to negotiate the trade deal.

Labor and environmental groups are concerned that the TPP would cost good-paying union jobs in the U.S. and weaken environmental and labor standards.

“They didn’t get any breakthrough. I don’t think they’re getting anywhere,” said economist Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the nonpartisan Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “There’s too many negatives here — the secrecy, the enormous domestic opposition not just from labor but from environmental groups and public health groups. Their negotiating partners know they don’t have anything approaching a public consensus.”

Mr. Obama is also pursuing a major market-opening deal with the European Union that also shows little sign of a negotiating breakthrough.

Mr. Obama insisted that the TPP, which would encompass 12 Pacific Rim countries and 40 percent of global trade, “is going to be the right thing to do — creating jobs, creating businesses, expanding opportunity for the United States.”

“And it’s going to be good for countries like Malaysia that have been growing rapidly but are interested in making that next leap to the higher-value aspects of the supply chain that can really boost income growth and development,” he said.

On the first leg of his trip, U.S. negotiators worked virtually around the clock trying to seal a deal with Japan on TPP, but came up short on thorny issues such as agricultural tariffs and autos. A senior administration official nevertheless told reporters that there had been a “breakthrough” in the talks because negotiators had agreed on a “pathway” to resolving their disagreements.

Some opponents of the deal scoffed at that reasoning.

“There is no breakthrough unless both parties agree there is some deal, and Japan’s foreign minister and trade minister have both been clear there was no deal,” said Lori Wallach, director of global trade watch at the watchdog group Public Citizen, which opposed TPP. She said the administration was “trying to spin down what was the lack of a deal at a do-or-die moment.”

Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso, gave voice to the frustration many in his country were feeling.

“No agreement would ever be reached until the U.S. midterm elections are over,” Mr. Aso said just before Mr. Obama left Japan.

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