Given the complex technical, economic, and divisive political issues this endeavor would entail, the October 2013 timetable for signing a TPP agreement appears overly optimistic. But the rival Beijing-backed projects must also overcome major differences among their proposed members in terms of their resources, competitive advantages, and stages of development. A more serious problem is that, though the TPP initiative has come to symbolize renewed U.S. economic leadership in East Asia, its economic impact will remain modest unless Canada, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and other strong economies besides the United States join it.
Furthermore, ASEAN remains a relatively weak institution. Unless a strong country occupies the annually rotating chairmanship, the association will not be able to accomplish much. This problem was particularly evident last year under the Cambodian chairmanship, which was marked by ineffectual leadership and Beijing-tilting policies that prevented the association from adopting a strong stand on maritime sovereignty issues. For now, if the United States wants to promote any major initiatives in the region, it must do so primarily through its bilateral alliances and partnerships, or through less formal multilateral coalitions of the willing, rather than through ASEAN.
Fortunately, after years of strain, relations with formal U.S. military allies in the Pacific have improved during the Obama administration’s first term. President Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard renewed the U.S.-Australian alliance in November 2011, when they announced an agreement to place 250 U.S. Marines in Darwin, marking the first stage of a rotation plan that will see as many as 2,500 U.S. Marines rotate through northern Australia as well as other augmentations to the U.S. military presence in Australia.
By the end of the first Obama administration, the bilateral security relationship with Japan had rebounded from earlier tensions over local opposition to the Futenma Marine Air Station in Okinawa, and the new Japanese government’s desire to pursue a more balanced policy between Washington and Beijing. The United States has also stood in solid opposition to North Korea’s missile launches and China’s maritime assertiveness.
The Obama administration’s strong support for the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the face of the 2010 provocations of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)–the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island—made the United States popular in South Korea, particularly compared to China, which refused to condemn Pyongyang for its actions. Meanwhile, outgoing ROK President Lee Myung-bak has stood behind the U.S. demand that the DPRK end its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs.
The Philippines has welcomed the Obama administration’s strong interest in Southeast Asia and ASEAN, of which the Philippines is a leading member. The administration has strengthened the U.S.-Philippine security alliance by enhancing security and stability in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), modernizing the Armed Forces of the Philippines, supporting the peace process in Muslim areas of Mindanao, and promoting broad-based economic growth and democratic development in the Philippines.
Finally, on November 15, 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta signed a joint vision statement with Thailand’s Defense Minister, renewing the Thai-U.S. military alliance. Panetta emphasized the U.S. willingness to help develop and modernize Thailand’s military.