A Muslim man held an anti-President Obama banner during a protest Friday against the visit of U.S. leaders to Malaysia.

Lai Seng Sin • Associated Press,

Shutdown stymies U.S. policy in Asia

  • Article by: Max Fisher
  • Washington Post
  • October 4, 2013 - 11:04 PM

When President Obama last traveled across Southeast Asia, in a trip two years ago designed to show his commitment to entrenching U.S. influence there, his administration’s “pivot to Asia” was stymied almost immediately by events in the Middle East. The Arab Spring was setting the region aflame. Obama’s goals of offsetting Chinese power, rallying rising East Asian economies under U.S. stewardship and securing a role in this increasingly important corner of the world would all have to wait.

Obama was to try again in Asia, this coming week, with a tour of four Southeast Asian countries and an appearance at an economic summit in Bali. But, much as in 2011, the re-pivot to Asia is being stalled before it’s even really begun — this time distracted not by problems in Middle East but by the U.S. Congress. The shutdown of the federal government, because of Congress’ failure to pass a budget, forced the White House to cancel the president’s trip. Obama’s Asian ambitions, once more, have been set aside.

U.S. foreign policy is of course larger than a weeklong presidential trip, which would surely have been more symbolic than substantial. But the value, in many ways, lay precisely in the symbolism, signaling to China that it would have to accommodate a long-term U.S. presence in its neighborhood and to China’s neighbors that they could count on U.S. support and leadership.

This is not the first time the administration has felt compelled to pull back from its long-held hope of engaging more fully in East Asia. Obama delayed his 2010 trip to the region twice, both times over domestic issues. At some point, the delays risk sending the message that the United States is unwilling, or unable, to commit itself in Asia. Regional leaders may see more advantage in hedging instead toward China — whose regional influence, however unpalatable for those states, they can at least count on. Resistance to being pulled into Beijing’s expanding orbit gets much easier for Asian countries if they believe they can gather under regional U.S. leadership.

Pushing against China

The window for establishing the United States as a Pacific great power could, at some point, close, or at least narrow. As China steps up its military and economic involvement in the region, neighboring countries must weigh their response. Many are eager to resist China’s encroachment, but they’re not strong enough to do it individually. In 2011, Burma suddenly pulled back from Beijing after years as a client, both because it felt abused by China and because it could choose the alternative of rapprochement and economic opening with the West. Vietnam and Malaysia are currently pushing back against Chinese maritime territorial claims, but at some point China’s strength may be too much for them to resist on their own.

The president was scheduled to leave Saturday for a four-country tour of Southeast Asia, with stops in Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. Earlier this week, Obama scrapped plans to visit the latter two because of reduced staffing due to the shutdown. He had hoped to keep his commitments to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Indonesia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Brunei, where world leaders will gather next week.

Obama had committed to attending the summits every year. The White House said Secretary of State John Kerry would lead a delegation to the countries instead.

Opportunities ‘will be lost’

Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, and Russian President Vladimir Putin also will attend APEC. Some media reported that Obama and Putin had hoped to meet during that summit, at a time when the two countries have sparred over Russia’s protection of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and are working toward a resolution of Syria’s chemical weapons program.

“The bottom line is his reputation will take a hit, especially in Southeast Asia,” said Michael Green, a former Asian affairs director under former President George W. Bush who now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Some real opportunities in Southeast Asia will be lost,” Green said. “The Chinese will probably quietly say that the Americans do not have staying power.”

The U.S. absences in the region are China’s opportunity. Asian officials and analysts said it is giving China a new edge in the tug-of-war between the two countries over influence in Asia. “How can the United States be a reliable partner when President Obama can’t get his own house in order?” asked Richard Heydarian, a foreign policy adviser to the Philippine Congress and a lecturer in international affairs at Ateneo de Manila University in Manila. “It makes people wonder: is the United States really in the position to come to our aid in the event of a military conflict?”

Underscoring the shift, the Chinese president arrived in Bali a few days ahead of time — just as the White House announced that Obama would not go. Uncharacteristically for China’s traditionally undiplomatic leader, Xi was in town to address the Indonesian parliament.

And in rare public criticism of the United States by a senior Singaporean official, Bilahari Kausikan, the recently retired permanent secretary of the Foreign Ministry, said that in the face of China’s challenge, Washington and ally Japan were “not exerting sufficient countervailing economic influence.”

An example of the sorts of choices Asian leaders face is playing out right now in Malaysia. Politics is dividing over the Trans Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-championed trade deal meant to encourage Asian countries to link their economies more closely with the United States’. Prime Minister Najib Razak is under pressure to abandon it; Obama’s now-canceled visit could have strengthened Razak’s position. But with Obama too busy wrestling with Congress to make it, Razak is on his own.

The New York Times contributed to this report.

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