Oct. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Congress needs to think “long and hard about the message” the partial government shutdown sends overseas about U.S. credibility, Secretary of State John Kerry said, urging lawmakers to “end it now, end it today.”
The furloughing of government workers is imperiling U.S. interests worldwide, delaying security assistance to Israel, freezing peacekeeping funds for the Sinai and potentially weakening enforcement of sanctions against Iran, Kerry told reporters yesterday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bali, Indonesia.
Kerry is standing in for President Barack Obama after he canceled a four-nation trip to Asia in order to seek an end to the impasse with Republicans in Congress who are demanding changes to his health insurance legislation. It is “very disappointing” that Obama had to cancel his visits, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said today.
“Obviously we prefer a U.S. government which is working to one which is not, and we prefer a U.S. president who is able to travel and fulfill international duties to one who is preoccupied with domestic” issues, Lee said at a business conference in Bali. “America is a very important partner for us but we understand his problems and his priorities and we hope he’ll be able to resolve them quickly.”
Obama’s absence means he won’t meet the leaders of Russia and China, which undermines his agenda in the short term, Kerry said.
Obama’s absence may add to anxiety in Asia that the U.S. is too preoccupied with internal politics to pursue its so-called “pivot” to Asia. The U.S. is seeking to boost defense ties with the region and finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. The second-term priority is intended to enhance America’s standing in a region adjusting to China’s economic and military emergence.
“We have a very diverse relationship in the region, not just based on national security but investment, trade,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker told reporters in Bali today. “What’s frustrating about the shutdown is that it delays much of that. The shutdown is not good for business, not good for the economy.”
Kerry said the shutdown, now in its sixth day, won’t have a long-term impact on U.S. foreign policy or Obama’s economic agenda if it ends soon, calling it “political silliness” forced upon the country by the House of Representatives. He urged “all of our friends and foes watching around the world” to “not mistake this momentary episode in American politics” for anything more than partisan politics.
Kerry also rejected the notion that Asia-Pacific leaders may view Obama’s inability to attend the summit as weakness, saying those leaders know the budget crisis will be resolved soon and “the United States will still be the strongest power in the world,” both militarily and economically.
“There isn’t one leader here who wouldn’t make the same decision” if faced with a similar crisis at home, Kerry said, adding they “understand” that on critical issues such as preventing nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea and ensuring Asian maritime security and freedom of navigation, “our commitment is not going to change.”
Kerry acknowledged the danger that the Obama administration’s priorities overseas are put at risk by the funding freeze while it is distracted by the political crisis in Washington.
Still, he called the partial shutdown a “momentary disruption” with “a momentary impact.”
“If it were prolonged, or it were repeated,” he warned, the world would begin “to question the willingness of the United States to stay the course - or its ability” to do so.
Kerry, who spent almost three decades in the U.S. Senate, put blame for the crisis on lawmakers of the lower House.
“It is not only within Congress’s power to prevent the shutdown, it is also within Congress’s power to end it -- to end it now, to end it today,” he said.
Obama called off his trip to Indonesia and Brunei, the host countries for back-to-back summits of APEC and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as Malaysia and the Philippines for what would have been a week-long visit to the region.
Asia has become a focus for the Obama administration given the region’s growing economies and consumer markets, and their potential to fuel jobs growth in America. 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.
“We’ve reached the point to put politics aside and do the economics and for the president and the leaders of the House and Senate to get into the same room,” Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg Television in Bali. “All of them. And make this thing work.”
Speaking at a joint briefing with Kerry yesterday, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman dismissed concerns that Obama’s absence from APEC would undermine U.S.-led efforts to secure an agreement on the TPP trade pact by the end of the year.
TPP talks began in March 2010 and have grown to encompass 12 nations -- the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Vietnam and Malaysia -- in an area with about $28 trillion in annual economic output.
“Of course we wish the President were here to lead the meeting of TPP leaders,” Froman said. Even so, “we’ve been here for the last several days meeting around the clock as ministers and negotiators, making significant progress on the negotiations,” he said.
Ken Lieberthal, who served as Asia director of the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton, called Obama’s cancellation “a serious blow to U.S. diplomacy,” saying it creates a negative view in Asia about the president’s “ability to deliver on commitments.”
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,” said Lieberthal, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Some Asian officials have questioned the U.S.’s ability to focus on their region.
“Is the pivot to Asia in the second-term Obama administration sustainable with all the attention to the Middle East?” Indonesian Ambassador to the U.S. Dino Djalal asked at a Sept. 25 conference in Washington. “Our relations are still below our potential.”
Obama’s absence will be made more notable by China’s diplomatic push around the meetings. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Indonesia and 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 plans to attend the Asean meeting and then make official visits to Thailand and Vietnam, Qin Gang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement.
To contact the reporter on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Bali, Indonesia at email@example.com
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