WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama Wednesday cancelled two stops in Asia next week and could also miss a pair of major summits, after a government shutdown dented his policy pivot to the rising region.
An embarrassed Obama postponed visits to the Philippines and Malaysia, Southeast Asian nations at the heart of his effort to rebalance US diplomatic and military weight to the Pacific.
His attendance at the APEC summit in Bali and the East Asia summit in Brunei – where he could meet leaders of major powers like Russia and China, key players on crises and showdowns with Syria, Iran and North Korea, were also in doubt.
Obama had hoped to use the trip to make progress in concluding initial talks on a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
The White House said the shutdown, triggered by a budget row with Republicans, made it impossible to send logistics teams to Manila and Kuala Lumpur ahead of the president’s massive traveling entourage.
It also admitted that the imbroglio in Washington had dealt a blow to Obama’s goals abroad.
“Logistically, it was not possible to go ahead with these trips in the face of a government shutdown,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
She said the White House would evaluate whether Obama travels to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bali and on to Brunei “based on how events develop throughout the course of the week.”
“For the sake of our national security and economic prosperity, we urge Congress to reopen the government.”
It is highly uncertain that Obama, due to leave for Asia Saturday, would travel if the government remains closed.
He called Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Philippine President Benigno Aquino to tell them he would be unable to visit and promised to reschedule.
“This completely avoidable shutdown is setting back our ability to promote US exports and advance US leadership in the largest emerging region in the world,” Hayden said. “A faction of House Republicans are doing whatever they can to deny America from carrying out our exceptional role in the world.”
Obama had been due to deliver an address in Malaysia on October 11 and to discuss military ties with the Philippines.
Secretary of State John Kerry will take Obama’s place on both stops, the White House said.
It was not the first time that domestic political turmoil forced Obama to cancel Asia trips: he had to reschedule several visits to Indonesia, where he spent four years as a boy, during his first term.
There had been whispers in Asia and in the Washington policy community that the rebalancing project badly needed the kind of jolt only the pageantry of a presidential trip can provide.
Hopes of detente with Iran and a long-shot bid with Russia to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal, have sucked Obama back into the Middle East and away from Asia in recent months.
There is also a feeling that Kerry – engaged in high stakes diplomacy at the UN and repeated visits to the Middle East – has yet to fully immerse himself in Asia policy.
The exit of administration heavyweights like Hillary Clinton and national security advisor Tom Donilon – both closely identified with the pivot – have also deprived US Asia policy of a figurehead.
“The Obama administration touted its ‘pivot’ to Asia as its major strategic innovation,” said Daniel Twining, an Asia specialist with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“The risk now, with the possible cancellation of the President’s trip to the region and other trends, is that they oversold their own policy and set themselves up to disappoint America’s many friends and allies in Asia.”
Brookings Institution scholar Joshua Meltzer, said that while US allies would understand Obama’s decision, it sends a negative signal.
“I don’t think they question the sincerity of the policy of rebalancing towards Asia,” he said, but warned there were questions about the administration’s capacity to “execute” the pivot in its entirety.
The administration rejects the idea that its focus on Asia has waned.
Vice President Joe Biden was in Singapore and India recently and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is touring the region now. Kerry will meet him in Tokyo for security talks, and will go to the APEC summit with or without the president.
Washington, while insisting it is not trying to encircle China or thwart its rise, has also closed deals to rotate detachments of Marines through Darwin, Australia, is basing ships in Singapore, and may also conclude closer military ties with the Philippines.