Obama's Asia Trip Uncertainty Raises U.S. Commitment Questions

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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President Barack Obama (2nd R) with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (L), Philippines President Benigno Aquino (2nd L) and Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (R) at the East Asia Summit in Indonesia's Bali island resort, November 19, 2011.

U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to cancel visits to two Asian nations and the uncertainty surrounding his attendance at two key Asian summits has raised questions about Washington's commitment to rebalance its foreign policy focus toward the fast-growing region where China's military and economic influence is growing rapidly.

Confronting the first U.S. government shutdown in 17 years over a budget impasse in Congress, Obama has scrapped visits to Malaysia and the Philippines that were due to begin this weekend so that he can grapple with the financial crisis at home.

His participation at the summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Indonesia and the 18-nation East Asia Summit in Brunei is uncertain, especially as the United States faces a historic debt default on Oct. 17 unless Congress agrees to raise Washington's borrowing limit.

"[W]e’ll evaluate the rest of the trip that's still on the schedule as each day goes by," Obama's spokesman Jay Carney said as hundreds of thousands of federal employees remained off the job without pay for the third day running Thursday.

The Asia trip has been long planned and is seen as critical to reinforce Obama's signature "Pivot to Asia" foreign-policy initiative that aims to rebalance America's obligations away from the Middle East and more heavily toward a region that is seeking U.S. security assurances to offset China's growing power.

Canceling the visit would be a setback to the regional diplomatic blitz under the Obama administration's first term, when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the focus of American resources on Asia a major priority, emphasizing that the 21st century would be the U.S. Pacific century, analysts said.

"I think the immediate result of [Obama] not going at all would be that countries, treaty allies, and new partners that President Obama and Hillary Clinton and his foreign policy and national security team have worked hard in the first administration to build up would immediately have questions about not whether President Obama is committed to the region, but whether the U.S. system will allow a sustained political focus and political capital to be spent on what the administration itself described as a pivot to Asia," said Ernest Bower, senior adviser for Southeast Asian studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Already, by canceling stops to Malaysia and the Philippines, Obama has missed "some important opportunities," he said.

Secretary of State John Kerry will lead delegations to both the countries, the White House said.

The Philippines is a treaty-bound U.S. ally and former colony and, more importantly, is a front-line Southeast Asian state pushing back against Chinese efforts to stamp its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In addition, Manila is considering the possibility of giving the United States greater access to its bases as it wards off China's alleged incursions into its territory and makes a legal challenge against Beijing's claims of nearly the entire South China Sea, a key international shipping route.

Malaysia, like the Philippines, is among six parties involved in a complex set of historically based territorial disputes in the vast sea. The last U.S. president to visit the Muslim-majority Malaysia was Lyndon Johnson in 1966.

Malaysia is also among 12 nations with which the United States is negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free trade bloc that would stretch from Vietnam to Chile and encompass 800 million people, about a third of world trade and nearly 40 percent of the global economy.


Bower thinks that a lack of continuous U.S. attention to Southeast Asia may result in states traditionally close to Washington hedging more towards China, their number-one trading partner and Asia's top economy.

"They will ask questions about, you know, the American commitment [and] the narrative in Beijing that had been developed over the last several years that the Americans would not, for whatever reasons—financial, political, personalities—be able to sustain a committed engagement in Asia," he said. "I think that’s our primary worry."

As Obama's trip to the key Asian summits in Indonesia's Bali island and oil-rich Brunei hangs in the balance, Chinese President Xi Jinping is already in the region, visiting Indonesia and Malaysia ahead of his inaugural appearance at the twin leaders' meetings.

"What the United States is doing in Southeast Asia, or at least seeking to do there, is really important in a way that this latest [Washington] D.C. political drama just isn't," commented Sam Roggeveen, the editor of The Interpreter, a blog of Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy.

He said that the American goal over the last few years, although not explicit, was to organize the region under U.S. leadership, as a counterbalance to China in its own backyard as Southeast Asian economies grow rapidly and shipping through the regional seas becomes a crux of the global economy.

While the stakes in the U.S. government shutdown are real, both politically and for the many Americans who will be directly affected, the stakes of American outreach in Asia are "continental and generational" in scope, said Roggeveen, a former senior strategic analyst in Australia's peak intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments.

"There's a growing sense abroad, in foreign capitals and outside of them, that the American system is increasingly broken and self-destructive," he said.

By missing the summits, "Obama would send the message that America's political brokenness is starting to undermine its foreign policy," he said.

"That would be particularly counterproductive, given that this trip is supposed to be all about sending the opposite message: that the U.S. is still powerful and is committed to Asia for the long haul. That's a message Beijing would notice as well."

Conflicting signals

Rising doubts in Asia about U.S. commitment may have also been triggered by conflicting signals from Washington.

For one thing, Kerry indicated at his confirmation hearing in the Senate in January that the the "pivot to Asia" may no longer be a guiding priority, saying U.S. military buildup in the region under such a shift may offend China.

The other concern in the region, some diplomats say, is the Obama administration's second-term emphasis on the Middle East.

Obama's foreign policy emphasis in his recent United Nations General Assembly speech was on finding a solution to the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program and making a breakthrough in the long-running negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

"If he misses the summits in Bali and Brunei, that's going to be very hard to undo because there is so much doubt in the region whether Secretary Kerry and the new team is as committed to the engagement of Asia as Clinton was," said Michael Green, a director of Asian affairs under Obama's predecessor President George W. Bush.

"And then people look at President Obama's U.N. speech which appeared to say that the focus for the next four years will be the Middle East," Green said. "I can't believe that's what he meant to convey, but it sure sounded like that."

Not the first

Obama, who had skipped meetings in Asia before, is not the first American leader to have failed to keep his appointments in the region.

President Bill Clinton was forced to cancel his attendance at the APEC summit in 1995 in Japan also because of a budget crisis, and did not attend the APEC leaders' meeting in 1998 as well.

Under the Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to skip top-level talks in the region due to other pressing commitments.

But the leaders returned on damage-control missions to maintain close ties with the region.

"The hole will be deeper this time for President Obama because of doubts about the second-term commitment," Green said.

A critical handicap for the Obama administration is that it is not getting enough support from Congress in driving Asia policy, partly because many key lawmakers who were old Asia hands have left the legislature, some analysts say.

"The administration has really lost a lot of support in Congress on Asia, just because the Asianists have all stepped down," said Murray Hiebert, a senior Southeast Asian analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"You have some champions on trade but not on Asia per se," he said.

Bower agreed, saying "I really think that we need Capitol Hill to dial in to the national interest."

"The American role in the geopolitical balance in Asia right now is rather delicate."


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