Obama's no-show at Asia summits a lost chance to buttress US influence

Trefor Moss says America's partners in the region needed to be reassured of its commitment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 11:10pm

Foreign policy always becomes a favourite pastime of lame-duck, second-term presidents, American pundits always say, because they can never get anything done at home. Well, this week we may find out whether President Barack Obama is doomed to set new standards in second-term lameness - by being gridlocked at home and frustrated abroad.

Starting this weekend, Obama had planned to inject new momentum into his signature foreign policy: the US strategic pivot to Asia.

But as has been confirmed, the head of an American government that has effectively ceased to function has decided not to embark on his anticipated four-nation tour of Southeast Asia after all. Instead, he has chosen to stay in Washington, like a captain duty-bound to stand on the burning deck, to keep searching for a way out of the US' disastrous government shutdown.

In doing so, he has made a serious mistake. Republican Party leaders don't care what Obama has to say. But Asian leaders do.

The White House had already scratched visits to Malaysia and the Philippines from Obama's itinerary in deference to Washington's self-made crisis, but initially kept the two most important elements of the trip on the slate. They were the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Indonesia, and the East Asia Summit in Brunei. Obama's attendance at these flagship regional forums really mattered: the credibility of his Asia pivot depended on it.

It projects images of a paralysed president and a nation exhausted by its own internal battles

It is a pity that Obama decided to skip Malaysia and the Philippines, but this was probably a price worth paying in order to deflect some criticism at home. Malaysia is not yet a key partner in the pivot strategy, although, as Obama's postponed state visit indicates, it may yet turn into one. The Philippines is a key partner, but its engagement is already assured since Manila is desperate for support in its territorial disputes with China.

The two summits, by contrast, were golden opportunities for Obama to roll up his sleeves and reassert his vision of an Asia-Pacific future defined by order, stability and economic openness. So long as he was actually in the room, he could have counselled his Asian colleagues to pay no mind to those numbskulls on Capitol Hill, and set about convincing key regional partners - like Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam - that America still has the will and the resources to get things done here in Asia.

Now that's all gone. Obama's no-show sends the opposite message, and projects an image of a shrunken America - of a paralysed president, and of a nation exhausted by its own internal battles. After all, how can a president who can't keep his own government running - who can't even get on a plane - lead the Asia-Pacific region into a new era of political and economic connectivity? How can a president with no money - because Congress won't give him any - plausibly claim that the US will bolster its presence in Asia, or spearhead a new regional trade initiative? And given all that, how can a power so evidently in decline preserve the regional status quo in the face of the significant challenge posed by a rising China?

With Obama failing to turn up, unfavourable contrasts are inevitably being drawn with President Xi Jinping , who has been on his own Southeast Asian tour this week, visiting Malaysia and Indonesia ahead of the dual summits.

Even then, the ball should still have been in Obama's court. Whatever Xi achieves in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, the fact is that most Southeast Asian countries prefer the predictability of the US-backed status quo to the uncertainty of a new regional order centred on China.

Some go further still: they fear China and her expanding influence. This is why most Southeast Asian governments have actively supported the US pivot, and why none have actively opposed it.

Leaders in the region also appreciate that the vision of China's rise to regional and global dominance, once so clear, has begun to blur. Bad debts, asset bubbles, black banks, inefficiency and corruption all threaten to rot the Chinese economy from the inside out - and that's without even considering China's exposure to political, social and environmental risk.

Beijing may yet find ways to overcome these challenges. But the point is this: as confidence in China wavers, the US had an opportunity - quite possibly its last - to rally the Asia-Pacific to its cause. But Obama needed to tell Asia to its face. His task was clear: to restate his vision - and convince us it's the right vision, and one America still has the force to realise.

The moment has been lost. Obama's centrepiece Asian foreign policy is now in limbo. From now on, when the president tells his Asia-Pacific counterparts, from half the world away, that his cash-strapped, dysfunctional government remains a reliable and fully engaged partner, why should they believe him?

Trefor Moss is an independent journalist based in Hong Kong and a former Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. He can be followed on Twitter @Trefor1