With Obama in US, China's leaders Xi and Li in spotlight at summits
With Obama cancelling trip, country's leaders bound to get more attention in Indonesia and Brunei
Chinese leaders look set to steal the show at two key regional forums next week as the White House announced the cancellation of US President Barack Obama's trip to Southeast Asia.
Obama had planned to depart today for a four-nation, week-long trip. He cancelled visits to Malaysia and the Philippines earlier this week because of his budget struggle with the US Congress and said late on Thursday that he would not attend the regional summits in Indonesia and Brunei.
The scrapping of the trip because of the partial government shutdown in the US now puts the spotlight on President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) Forum on Monday and the East Asia Summit on Wednesday.
Analysts say the cancellation of Obama's trip also damages the US' strategic "rebalancing" in Asia, through which it seeks to re-engage with Asia in order to maintain its presence and interests in a region where China's clout is growing rapidly. Beijing sees the renewed US interest in Asia as a form of containment.
Ian Storey, a senior fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said the cancellation would project the image of the US in the region as "politically dysfunctional" and "on the brink of economic crisis".
"China, on the other hand, is looking prosperous and self-confident. Xi Jinping will have the floor at Apec, and so will Li at the East Asia Summit," said Storey.
With the economy growing, China is now seeking to regain trust in the region - eroded by recent tensions over maritime territorial disputes - with trade and investment incentives.
Obama's absence would not only send "all the wrong signals" to the region but would also help raise the profiles of Xi and Li in the two major diplomatic events, analysts said.
Tao Wenzhao, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Obama's repeated cancellation of Asia trips raised the question of whether US was able to commit to the region.
"Countries in the region, especially US allies like Japan, might want to rethink whether they could really rely on the US," Tao said.
Obama has appointed Secretary of State John Kerry to fill in for him at the summits.
The White House blamed the Republicans as it announced it was scrapping the trip to tackle the stand-off over the US budget, which has shut down non-essential government services.
"The cancellation of this trip is another consequence of the House Republicans forcing a shutdown of the government. This completely avoidable shutdown is setting back our ability to create jobs through promotion of US exports and advance US leadership and interests in the largest emerging region in the world," its statement said.