Editor’s note: President Donald Trump’s decision to immediately eject the U.S. from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership wasn’t entirely unpredictable: He campaigned against what he called a “disastrous” deal and scored points by calling out his opponent Hillary Clinton’s past support for it as secretary of state.
But for many Asia watchers, the unconventional politician’s rare fidelity to a campaign promise has far-reaching implications for American leadership in a crucial region — and more broadly in the global arena.
Their worry is less about losing market access in fast-growing markets and more about eroding what the deal was supposed to shore up: America’s credibility on security issues. No TPP, they say, means that China will control trade standards and grow increasingly assertive in its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
David Adelman was U.S. ambassador to Singapore beginning in 2010, as President Barack Obama unveiled an effort to reassure allies of American commitment to the region.
Mr. Adelman, an Emory Law graduate, former Georgia state senator and key Obama fundraiser here during the 2008 campaign, was sent to the front lines this effort in the city-state that has become the undisputed hub for multinational business in the region.
In that posting, he saw the resilience of U.S. security and commercial ties with Singapore, a relationship that often sets the tone for its engagement across Southeast Asia.
Global Atlanta caught up by phone with the former ambassador, who joined Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong after leaving government and now splits time between Asia and the U.S. working on investment deals with Reed Smith, a New York law firm.
His view: Asia is indispensable for the U.S., despite unpredictable moves by the new administration.
The interview below has been edited for clarity, flow and brevity.
Global Atlanta: You were in Singapore during the “pivot to Asia,” which some criticized as being in name only — especially since it took so long to hammer out the now-stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership — and because the U.S. continued to be devoting so much of its attention to the Middle East. What do you say to detractors of the “pivot”?
Mr. Adelman: The U.S. plays a leadership role in all four corners of the world, but any objective view would hold that our engagement in Asia, beginning in 2009-10, was deeper and more intense than at any time since the end of the conflict in Vietnam.
Security, trade, investment, people-to-people programs — it was a deliberate, all-hands-on-deck government-promoted change in policy. But, frankly America’s business community, academic institutions and other parts of civil society equally redoubled their efforts and have leading roles in the region.
There are many concrete examples. The U.S. joined the East Asia Summit with the president also attending ASEAN meetings. We shifted US Navy and US Air Force assets to the Western Pacific. We created a strategic partnership dialogue in Singapore, sent high level delegations to every Shangri-La Dialogue meeting. We led the effort to open up Myanmar to more democratic principles. We hosted China’s President Xi Jinping in California. American trade and investment grew every year at significant rates. I could go on. The evidence showing the pivot was real is overwhelming.
Are the gains from this focus on Asia threatened under a Trump administration that has pulled out of the TPP, shown more skepticism toward China, and has seemed to be less beholden to traditional alliances with places like South Korea?
Every new administration brings with it different policies and approaches. While continuity is important it’s a good thing to take a fresh look at our foreign policy from time to tome. That’s the American way. A lot of experts in Washington have been wringing their hands over whether the new administration will reverse some of this.
I’m one who thinks America has no choice but to be more engaged in Asia. After all, that’s where the world’s economic growth is occurring. With hundreds of millions of Asians fighting their way into the middle class, America’s business community will lead the way to meet the demand for goods and services. If our government hesitates, I am confident civil society institutions will join the business community and build capacity and deepen our engagement with people and institutions across the Pacific.
What do you make of the decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership? How damaging is it to American credibility in the region?
It was a mistake to pull back from the TPP. That being said, while there was disappointment in Asia, most countries understand domestic politics was the driving force behind that decision. .
What happens to the deal remains to be seen. Different schools of thought are out there, one of which is that the terms of the TPP can act as a placeholder, that at some point in the future, America will come around and seek to re-institute the agreed-to terms. The timing and response we will get in capitals across Asia remains to be seen.
Does this supposed step back for U.S. leadership in the region open the door for China to enhance its role as much as the pundits (and some of TPP’s earlier proponents) have been saying?
It’s not a zero-sum game. China’s gains do not come at the expense of the United States. Our economy is integrally intertwined with that of China, so when both countries prosper and global growth increases, we’re all better off.
As for this idea that America’s withdrawal from the agreement opens the door to China’s assertiveness, I will say that the countries in the region are seeking a counterweight to their giant neighbor, and America’s role since the end of World War II has been to provide that counterweight and stand with our allies and friends across the region. I have every reason to believe we will continue in that role, the unfortunate decision to withdraw from the TPP notwithstanding.
Why was this TPP agreement, the final terms of which were ironed out in Atlanta after seven years, such a hard political sell?
The deal was hard-fought. The negotiations were intense and the terms were generally favorable to the United States. We stand to benefit when there are uniform standards, including intellectual-property protections, protections from unfair practices by state-owned enterprises or state-linked entities, rules governing the transfer of data to name a few. All of that was in the TPP. It is disappointing we have walked away from those favorable terms.
Trade is complicated; the economy is changing at a very high velocity and it’s resulting in anxiety and in some places structural displacement of jobs. It’s unfortunately easy to excite people with the populist message that the economic growth of other countries is coming at the expense of the American economy. That’s an easy narrative to peddle.
American businesses, including many for the multinational corporations with headquarters in Atlanta and Georgia, understand that global supply chains are crucial to their success and that the federal government cannot disrupt international trade without also disrupting the success of important American businesses.
The part of the debate that seemed to be lost was the fact that America’s markets are already open to foreign goods and services, and one need go no further than the aisles of Walmart for evidence of that fact. The undeniable truth is 5 percent of the population of the world lives in the U.S. and the other 95 percent live outside the US. Being able to reach those other 95 percent is key to the competitiveness of American firms.
With the growing purchasing power and economic strength of people in East Asia, it behooves government policy makers and American businesses to collaboratively fashion policies that provide for increased market access and further harmonization of the rules governing trans-Pacific trade. There’s no good argument for keeping those markets hard to reach for American goods and services. A trade war would do just that.
What do you think of China’s One Belt, One Road policy, which is a huge Chinese-backed infrastructure building spree across Central and Southeast Asia? Should American companies be more involved, and should the U.S. worry about China’s increasing willingness to form its own multilateral institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank?
I think the development of economies in Asia will be positive for the United States and our businesses. We all benefit from global growth, and no economy has benefited from more than the U.S.
As for participating in the AIIB, Congress would have to appropriate capital. Even if the standards came up to those which are expected by the U.S. I cannot imagine there is much appetite in Washington for participation in the AIIB. We support the Asian Development Bank, which has very high standards, and is strongly supported by our ally Japan. But to be sure, broadly speaking, the U.S. should be supportive of any efforts to further develop infrastructure in Asia and raise the standard of living anywhere across the world.
If there was one theme during the presidential campaign that was troubling, it’s this idea that the gains of other countries must come at the expense of America. That has not been the experience, and I don’t think it will be the case in the future.
That’s how we have led since the end of World War II, and I see our role as every bit as important today as it was at the end of World War II. To the extent that China is also seeking to contribute to the development of Asia, we should look for ways to partner and support each other. I’m often asked to describe the Trump foreign policy, and it’s very early to say, but if there was one theme during the presidential campaign that was troubling, it’s this idea that the gains of other countries must come at the expense of America. That has not been the experience, and I don’t think it will be the case in the future. We rebuilt Europe, we rebuilt Japan and in doing so, we laid the groundwork for the global economy, which lifted America to become the most prosperous country in history. This is not a Cold War style competition. The U.S. and China have become interdependent in a way we did not experience with the Soviets. We need each other.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Hong Kong after leaving your post as ambassador to Singapore. These two cities are perennially compared and contrasted as Asian business hubs, with strong logistics sectors and key regional headquarters of multinationals. How should companies think about them?
Both Singapore and Hong Kong are important financial and commercial centers, without a doubt. Hong Kong has a much deeper capital market. Singapore is working to deepen its capital markets and has been building on its strengths in trade.
One of the ways I think about this is: If your primary interest is in China, then Hong Kong is an ideal place from which to do business. When you wake up in the morning and look out the window in Hong Kong, you see China. Singapore is also a great place to do business, but in a different way: When you wake up in the morning and look out the window in Singapore, you see Asia.
There’s no right answer to the question as to which place is the better location from which to do business. It really depends on your objective.
Do you worry about the erosion of the one-country, two-systems’ ideal in Hong Kong, where there has been a lot of political upheaval of late and claims about mainland Chinese intervention?
There’s been a fair amount of political activism in Hong Kong over the last few years, and businesses are wise to take note, but my view is Hong Kong will continue to operate as a separate system with all of the trademarks of capitalism. Members of the business community who seek to do business in Asia should be very comfortable in Hong Kong. While there have been a few developments worthy of note, it’s not my view that there’s any imminent change coming to the Hong Kong business environment.
On what do you base that view?
Experience. I first traveled to Hong Kong in 1987. I lived there for a few years when I was a Managing Director with Goldman Sachs. I have many Hong Kong-based clients. Hong Kong’s economy is important to China. If you were only to look at one example — the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Connect and Hong Kong-Shanghai Connect. This allows the trading of securities more freely so that mainland Chinese ‘A shares’ are more available to foreign investors through the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Can you point out some highlights of your time as ambassador to Singapore?
It’s hard to answer that question with a singular experience. American relationships in Southeast Asia are multifaceted, and in many ways the U.S.-Singapore partnership leads the way for American international relations in the region. The foundation of the relationship is security and the interoperability that has developed between the Singaporean and American military, in particular the US Navy and the US Air Force.
Trade and investment is the second pillar. Singapore is a country that year in and out that produces one of America’s trade surpluses in the world, and it’s an attractive base for American companies from which to do business in Asia. Those form the foundation of the day-to-day work in the US embassy.
With regard to highlights a few come to mind. First, I have to say that leading the first trade mission of U.S. companies to Naypyidaw, Myanmar, after the relaxation of sanctions on that country was historic and was one of the great honors in my public service.
Second, I recall very vividly standing on the end of Singapore’s pier at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base when the first Littoral Combat Ship, U.S.S. Freedom, arrived after having negotiated the terms for four LCS ships to operate out of Singapore facilities.
Third, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Singapore shortly after the 2012 election, where she delivered the first major economic speech after the reelection, was also a highlight. Presidential and cabinet level visits are not uncommon. But, the first major address in the Pacific of the second term came with special significance. It set the tone for locking in our pivot and came on the heels of our successful establishment of the U.S.-Singapore Strategic Dialogue which brought our bilateral relationship with Singapore to an all time high.
Finally, leading the American mission in Singapore was the honor of a lifetime. Working shoulder to shoulder with the Americans in Asia and across the world who work hard every day to keep us safe and advance our interests was a true privilege.