Federal Politics


Competition adds to free exchange

Barack Obama's visit to south-east Asia this week, his first trip abroad since winning re-election, has again demonstrated the reach of America's ''soft power'' on the global stage. Mr Obama's meeting with Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was extensively and favourably reported, after which the President headed for Cambodia and the East Asia Summit to announce that the US would wrap up talks for its Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement by next October.

The TPP is but one of a number of free-trade initiatives under discussion or consideration, and Mr Obama's announcement is seen by many observers as an attempt to steal a march on the others, with the aim of positioning the US at the front and centre of the world's most dynamic economic and trading region.

Trade and economic liberalisation initiatives are always to be welcomed, but critics suggest that with its emphasis on protection provisions and foreign investor dispute settlement mechanisms, the TPP is in reality a stalking horse for the entrenchment of US business interests in Asia. There are 11 countries, including Australia, in discussions over the TPP, and a number of others are weighing up the merits of joining. It's a significant enough grouping but not as influential as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership initiative launched in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. The RCEP comprises 16 countries, including economic heavyweights China, Japan, South Korea and India, and on paper at least has the potential to create the world's largest economic bloc.

Liberalising trade and investment across Asia while minimising barriers to business is certain to be long and complicated, and many of those countries that have signed up to the RCEP will continue to negotiate more modest multilateral and bilateral agreements. The 10-member ASEAN grouping, for example, is well advanced on instituting an economic community by 2015.

American trade representatives believe there is no reason why the TPP and the RECP cannot co-exist, but it is hard not to conclude that the US initiative will lack the heft and influence of the RCEP. Trade and economic rivalry being what it is, the TPP is quite likely to be viewed with suspicion by China and India. Smaller countries with their unique strategic and economic outlooks are also likely to be conflicted about siding with one or the other grouping. Sensibly Australia has a foot in both camps.

There is no reason to conclude that competing trade blocs will automatically exacerbate regional tensions or rivalries. The initiatives set in motion in Cambodia may convey the appearance of a contest of heavweights but the reality is that they will eventually enable the freer movement of trade, capital and services across Asia - with all the economic benefits this entails.


New cafe racers

For men of a certain vintage - let's call them middle-aged - cycling is the new black. This demographic used to take its recreation out on the golf course where, dressed in funny clothes, they talked about Big Berthas and broomstick putters. Nowadays, they're more likely to be found out on the road decked in colourful Lycra and pedalling expensive racing bikes. Boys being boys, there is still a need to compare equipment, of course - which is where cafes come in.

Before a ride, or more generally afterwards, serious recreational cyclists congregate at cafes to discuss their ride, boast about the latest gear they've bought, or perhaps grouse about an encounter with a badly behaved motorist.

Some cafe proprietors have taken to offering inducements to capture and keep this new breed of well-heeled customer - such as free Wi-Fi, cycling maps and large, flat-screen televisions to watch professional road races. The really enterprising cafe owners have set up shop alongside bicycle retailers and repairers, allowing cyclists the opportunity to have their mounts repaired or maintained while they concentrate on enjoying a chat and a snack.

Europe, the spiritual home of professional and recreational cycling, has had a flourishing cafe-cycling culture for years. That's not surprising given that refreshments usually taste better after burning off a few calories out on the road. And cafes have a status unique in cycling: they're the one place where riders can partake of a performance-enhancing drug, caffeine, quite legally.