"After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, [we are] turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific region," United States President Barack Obama exclaimed in a 2011 speech before the Australian parliament.

It marked the formal commencement of the US' much-touted "pivot to Asia" - or "rebalancing" - strategy under the Obama administration.

For the US president, it wasn't only about decoupling from what he characterised as his predecessor's "dumb war" legacy in the Middle East, but also tapping into the vast market potentials of the Asia-Pacific region, which has rapidly emerged as the new centre of global economic gravity.

"As the world's fastest-growing region - and home to more than half the global economy - the Asia-Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority, and that's creating jobs and opportunity for the American people," he continued. It didn't take long before Obama transformed this expression of primary strategic interest into concrete policy.

Growing doubts over Trans-Pacific Partnership sign-off

Under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, Washington aimed to create a gargantuan free-trade area among the world's leading and most promising economies.

But there was also an element of strategic urgency. Cognisant of China's rising economic influence and maritime assertiveness in Asia, the Obama administration was intent on countering what they perceived as a direct challenge to the US hegemony in the Indo-Pacific theatre.

Five years on, the Obama administration is heading into its sunset amid spirited domestic opposition, across the ideological spectrum, to greater US integration into global markets. More fundamentally, what is at stake is no less than US primacy in Asia.

The American Century

For the past century, a cocktail of naval prowess and free-trade ideology has undergirded the US foreign policy interest.

Since the end of World War II, which saw the massive destruction of industrial powers in Europe and Asia (Japan), the US navy has guarded international waters; American companies have dominated the global investment and innovation landscape; and US-led international organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have revamped the economic regimes of almost every nation on earth.

There is palpable perception that economic globalisation only benefits major American companies and labour-intensive Asian economies, exposing ordinary workers as well as small and medium enterprises in the West to vicious Darwinian competition from without.


The 2007-08 Great Recession and its aftershocks, however, have massively undermined the US hyperpower, reducing it to an often whimpering, slackened goliath.

Or, at least, that is how the US has been increasingly perceived by many of its allies and nemeses in recent years.

Confronting deepening doubts over the US' wherewithal as the supposed anchor of stability and prosperity in critical regions, the Obama administration, in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's words, promised "a substantially increased investment - diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise - in the Asia-Pacific region". It had to offer more than hollow rhetoric.

The TPP, vigorously pushed by Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton, is a "high-standard" trade liberalisation scheme aimed at reducing barriers to foreign investment in the emerging markets of Asia, removal of non-tariff restrictions on imports, streamlining of the public sector via aggressive privatisation, and empowerment of multinational companies to protect their assets against sovereign governments' appropriation.

OPINION: Finalising the TPP - A critical step for East Asia

It represented the centrepiece of the Obama administration's efforts to re-assert US primacy in Asia and expand trade and investment opportunities for American capital abroad.

For Washington, this was a win-win deal - facilitating American economic rebound and diffusion of technology between developed and emerging markets.

Thanks to leaked documents, it soon became clear to many that the TPP could excessively empower big capital at the expense of public interest as well as undermine sovereign prerogative of developing countries.

But Asian partners, from Malaysia to Vietnam and Singapore, stood their ground, putting up a determined resistance against domestic public pressure.

Anti-globalisation populism

Interestingly, the agreement proved also controversial in the developed world, particularly in the US, where leading presidential candidates vehemently opposed the mega-trade agreement.

To Bernie Sanders and his supporters, the deal represented a disastrous trade agreement "designed to protect the interests of the largest multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy".

READ MORE: The Trans-Pacific Partnership in perspective

To Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee who has made huge headway among blue-collar white voters, free-trade agreements "destroyed our country as we know it," so there is no reason to sign up for new ones.

In recent months, American public opposition to the deal has intensified, forcing Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, to also reverse her position.

Amid rising economic inequality, stubborn unemployment rates, and stagnation in middle-class incomes, views towards economic globalisation have considerably soured among ordinary American voters.

OPINION: Time is running out on TPP

As a result, Obama struggled to gain the so-called "fast-track authority" to expedite the TPP negotiations, which have been hobbled by delays, discord and distrust among trading partners.

According to a Pew survey, almost half of the American public views greater economic engagement with the world unfavourably.

There is palpable perception that economic globalisation only benefits major American companies and labour-intensive Asian economies, exposing ordinary workers as well as small and medium enterprises in the West to vicious Darwinian competition from without.

Desperate to leave behind a concrete legacy in Asia, Obama is embarking on his final, lonely pitch in favour of the controversial trade agreement.

But it is unlikely that he will succeed in overcoming profound public scepticism over further economic liberalisation, as populism and anti-elite sentiments dominate the US elections.

It seems Obama's efforts to enhance the US influence in Asia only evinced the depth of domestic ideological and socioeconomic faultlines, while driving home the collapsing appeal of globalisation among the demos.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia's New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera