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Obama backs TPP so China doesn't 'set the rules'

  • Chen Weihua and Heng Weili

    The Jakarta Post

  /   Wed, January 13, 2016   /  06:19 pm
Obama backs TPP so China doesn't 'set the rules' US President Barack Obama smiles as he delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, January 12, 2016. (via China Daily)

US President Barack Obama smiles as he delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, January 12, 2016. (via China Daily)

In his final State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama singled out China in a bid to push Congress to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

"With TPP, China doesn't set the rules in that region, we do," Obama told lawmakers on Tuesday night in a speech in the House of Representatives in Washington.

"You want to show our strength in this century?" he asked. "Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it."

The TPP, a trade agreement reached by 12 Pacific Rim countries in October, is facing strong opposition in Congress, especially from Obama's fellow Democrats. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, also has opposed TPP.

China is not a TPP member, but is an important trade partner of all 12 TPP members, which comprise Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam, some of which have already had free trade agreements with China.

In the only other reference to China, Obama alluded to its economic slowdown and recent stock market turmoil, saying that "economic headwinds blow from a Chinese economy in transition".

Focusing on domestic politics, Obama struck back at critics who have challenged his economic and national security stewardship, calling it all "political hot air".

He vowed a robust campaign to "take out" the Islamic State group, but chastised Republicans for "over the top claims" about the extremist group's power.

"Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger and must be stopped," he said. "But they do not threaten our national security."

In a swipe at some Republican presidential candidates, he warned against "voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don't look like us or pray like us or vote like we do or share the same background."

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who was selected to give the Republican response to Obama's address, underscored how the heated campaign rhetoric about immigrants and minorities from GOP front-runner Donald Trump in particular has unnerved some Republican leaders, Haley called on Americans to resist the temptation "to follow the siren call of the angriest voices".

Obama ticked through a retrospective of his domestic and foreign policy actions in office, including helping lead the economy back from the brink of depression, taking aggressive action on climate change and ending a Cold War freeze with Cuba.

Yet he was frank about one of his biggest regrets: failing to ease the persistently deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans.

"The rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better," he conceded. "There's no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I'll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office."

Obama avoided the traditional litany of policy proposals. He did reiterate his call for working with Republicans on criminal justice reform and also vowed to keep pushing for action on issues such as gun violence and fixing the nation's immigration laws.

Obama symbolically had a chair left empty in the box where First Lady Michelle Obama was sitting in honor of those who have died from gun violence. The hashtag #EmptySeat was trending heavily on Twitter in response to the gesture.

The single reference to "gun" compared with four mentions of "climate change" and 15 to the "economy."

Obama apparently has delivered on his promise to keep this year's speech shorter: The text of his speech unofficially comes in at 5,438 words versus 6,776 in his 2015 speech.

"The United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth. Period," Obama declared. "It's not even close." (kes)(+)

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