If a picture is worth a thousand words, photos from two global summits in Asia this week reveal all you need to know about how President Barack Obama’s absence due to the budget fight in Washington has marginalized the U.S.
At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali, the official photo of leaders in matching batik shirts shows a smiling Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin flanking the host, Indonesia’s president. In the far right corner of the back row, at the edge of the stage, is U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who’s been standing in for Obama all week at summits across Asia.
The picture from the East Asia Summit in Brunei on Oct. 9 was more of the same -- Kerry shunted to the far left, while Premier Li Keqiang, China’s second-ranking leader, basked center stage next to the host, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. At the gala dinner, Kerry was seated at one end of a long table, between the Malaysian prime minister’s wife and an empty chair.
For a White House that’s made Asia a second-term priority and sought to underscore America’s centrality to trade, growth and security in the fastest-growing region in the world, the optics haven’t been great, as they say in Washington.
Obama was to have occupied the place of honor to one side of the Sultan, but the U.S. was demoted in his absence, said one U.S. official. Protocol dictates that foreign ministers such as Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, who represented Putin in Brunei, were relegated to the wings, said the official, who asked not to be named because of government policy.
Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, tried to make the best of his lot. Addressing a CEO summit at the APEC forum in Bali, he joked that he’d “worked very, very hard to replace a president.” After a theatrical pause, he added: “This is not what I had in mind.”
He repeated the same one-liner at another gathering, both times as a prelude to apologizing for Obama’s absence and reassuring partners that the partial government shutdown in Washington is “nothing more” than “a moment in politics.”
Obama conceded that the situation is not ideal, though. He was scheduled to lead a meeting in Bali of leaders from 12 nations trying to seal a U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement by the end of this year that would link a region that boasts $28 trillion in annual economic output.
“It didn’t help that I wasn’t there to make sure that we went ahead and closed a trade deal that would open up markets and create jobs for the United States,” Obama said at a White House news conference on Oct. 8. It’s like “not showing up to my own party.”
While Obama was stuck in Washington, China’s and Russia’s leaders grabbed the limelight and headlines.
Chinese state media practically gloated that Xi and Li were the main attractions, and newspaper commentaries in Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong wondered if the U.S., facing a looming threat to its government’s borrowing ability, could sustain its commitment to Asia -- or if China would displace the U.S.
The Jakarta Globe ran a picture of an embattled-looking Obama with the headline: “Diminished Superpower.”
“I’m sure the Chinese don’t mind that I’m not there right now,” Obama said at his news conference. “There are areas where we have differences and they can present their point of view and not get as much of a pushback.”
Kerry’s been making the same case Obama would have, stressing U.S. priorities and pushing back against efforts to derail them. Still, the secretary of state -- like any other top diplomat -- doesn’t have the same status as the chief executive. So Kerry had informal conversations with the Chinese and Russian leaders instead of the lengthier sit-down meetings they would have had with Obama.
A State Department official traveling with Kerry downplayed the impact of Obama’s absence and stressed to reporters that other leaders interacted directly and respectfully with Kerry, just as they would have with Obama. The official, who wasn’t authorized to be quoted, said the leaders expressed empathy for Obama’s decision to stay home to resolve the budget battle.
In Kuala Lumpur today, Kerry will again stand in for the president, this time at a Global Entrepreneurship Summit. Greeting U.S. Embassy employees last night, he joked that despite his warm welcome, the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia is “really sad he’s not introducing the president of the United States.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Kuala Lumpur at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com