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Barack Obama -- the last man standing.

Summary: As we are all consumed with the ups and downs on this bizarre campaign, President Barack Obama is on his last trip to Asia.

As we are all consumed with the ups and downs on this bizarre campaign, President Barack Obama is on his last trip to Asia. The direct purpose of his trip to China is to attend a meeting of the G-20, but it is perhaps more importantly to breathe life into one of his big ideas -- the pivot to Asia. It is a genuinely important policy, but Obama is now the last man standing willing to push for it.

Foreign policy is consumed with momentary crises -- often created by failing states and violent groups. But in the long run, the future is shaped by winners, not noisy losers. And when the flashpoints of today have passed, the rise of Asia will remain the dominant trend of our time.

The Pacific will be the arena that defines the 21st century. According to the World Bank, in just 10 years, four of the five largest economies in the world will be in the Asia-Pacific. The United States will be able to shape the 21st century only if it remains a vital Pacific power.

How should Washington approach this region? One central task is obviously to prevent China from dominating the region. That job has been made somewhat easier by Beijing's recent expansionist moves, especially in the South China Sea. They illustrate the challenge China faces -- it is not rising in a vacuum. Asia is a crowded continent, and every aggressive move by Beijing produces an angry reaction from its neighbors like Vietnam and the Philippines. India, which has resisted any moves that would suggest it is ganging up with America against China, has nonetheless moved in that direction in recent weeks. The Obama administration has also enhanced security cooperation with a range of traditional allies like Japan, Australia and Singapore.

But Washington's policy is not containment. It can't be. China is not the Soviet Union, but rather the most important trading partner for every country in Asia. The larger project, writes Kurt Campbell, until recently the State Department's top Asia hand, in his smart book "The Pivot," is "to strengthen Asia's operating system -- that is, the complex legal, security and practical arrangements that have underscored four decades of Asian prosperity and security." That means bolstering freedom of navigation, free trade, multilateral groups and institutions, greater transparency and accountability, and such diplomatic practices as peaceful resolution of disputes.

The most vital of these right now, Campbell notes, is trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the "sine qua non" of Washington's pivot to Asia because it works at all levels simultaneously -- economic, political and strategic. It boosts growth, shores up American alliances, sends a powerful signal to China and most important -- writes the rules of the 21st century in ways that are fundamentally American. Without it, expect China to begin drafting those rules in ways that will be very different.

And yet the TPP is now under assault from every quarter in the United States. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump flatly oppose it. Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan say it doesn't meet their standards anymore. What these standards are they never really specify. Harvard's Robert Lawrence has noted that for workers, the TPP's gains far outweigh losses.

The notion, often peddled by Trump, that the U.S. comes out badly in trade deals can only be asserted by someone who knows nothing about the topic. The simple reality is that the U.S. is the country with the largest market. As a result, it has the most leverage and -- as foreign officials have often complained to me -- it uses it, asking for exemptions and exceptions that few other countries ever get. TPP is no different. Asian countries have made the vast majority of concessions. And since their markets are more closed than America's, the deal's net result will be to open them more.

One could argue that Sanders is speaking out of conviction, though it is strange to hear the idealistic socialist viciously denounce trade policies that have lifted hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people out of poverty. With Trump, who knows what he actually believes? The others -- most importantly Clinton and Ryan -- are shamelessly adopting positions they must know are wrong. The Republican Party has now reversed itself entirely on two of its core beliefs, immigration and trade, going from a party of openness to one that wants walls and tariffs.

With the Asia pivot, Barack Obama is pursuing the deepest, enduring interests of the United States. But in doing so, he is now alone in a Washington that is increasingly awash in populism, protectionism and isolationism.

Fareed Zakaria is published weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Sep 5, 2016
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