President Barack Obama canceled plans to attend two economic summits in Asia next week, a setback for his top foreign policy goal, as he remains in Washington to seek an end to the partial government shutdown.
Obama informed the leaders of the host countries, Indonesia and Brunei, in telephone calls late Thursday from Washington, according to the White House. Earlier this week, he called off planned stops in Malaysia and the Philippines scheduled for the end of what would have been a week-long visit to a region where the U.S. is seeking to expand trade and defense cooperation.
The decision may add to growing anxiety in Asia that the U.S. is too preoccupied with internal political challenges to pursue its so-called “Asia pivot,” Obama’s second-term foreign-policy priority to enhance U.S. standing in a region adjusting to China’s economic and military emergence. U.S. exports to the Pacific Rim rose to $326.4 billion in 2010, from $254.6 billion in 2009, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“This is a serious blow to U.S. diplomacy,” said Ken Lieberthal, who served as Asia director of the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. “This development cannot but affect views in Asia” on the president’s “ability to deliver on commitments.”
Obama’s originally scheduled stops included the annual meeting of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group in Bali, Indonesia, starting on Oct. 7 and a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Darussalam, Brunei.
Secretary of State John Kerry will instead lead the U.S. delegations to those meetings, Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, said in a statement.
“The cancellation of this trip is another consequence of the House Republicans forcing a shutdown of the government,” Carney said. The shutdown “is setting back our ability to create jobs through promotion of U.S. exports and advance U.S. leadership and interests in the largest emerging region in the world.”
Among the administration’s main goals for the trip was making progress on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free-trade zone linking an area with about $26 trillion in annual economic output.
The U.S. has played a crucial role in past APEC and Asean meetings and sending Kerry in Obama’s place “is very different from having the president show up,” Lieberthal, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said by e-mail.
“That may have negative spillover effects on such things” as the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, Lieberthal said. “Overall, not a good day for U.S. diplomacy.”
Obama’s absence will be made more notable by China’s diplomatic push around the meetings. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Indonesia yesterday and today announced plans to boost defense and security cooperation with Malaysia after meeting with Prime Minister Najib Razak near Kuala Lumpur.
Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang is also planning to attend the Asean meeting, and then make officials visits to Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam, Qin Gang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said today in a statement.
“How can we say that we are pivoting toward Asia for rebalance but do not even show up -- canceled -- at the most important party in the region, especially when Xi Jinping is making such a high-profile tour at the two most important Asean countries with lots of goodies?” said Huang Jing, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore.
“After Syria, this is even a more serious blow with far-reaching impact,” Huang said in an e-mailed response to questions. “As our credibility goes, so does their confidence in the U.S.”