China and the US are jockeying for influence in Southeast Asia to gain trade and protect interests. That requires an outreach strategy based on transparency, reliability and trust. President Xi Jinping's trip to Indonesia and Malaysia this week follows the formula, but the pulling out of his American counterpart Barack Obama from trips to the region sends quite another message. His cancelling due to problems caused by the shutting down of parts of the American government as a result of a budget crisis unwittingly shows weakness when there should instead be strength.
Xi has no such problems. China's economy outpaces any other major nation's. His speech to Indonesian lawmakers yesterday was the first by a foreign leader and amplifies a Chinese charm offensive that is steadily gathering pace. He attends the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation annual forum in Bali next week and Premier Li Keqiang then heads a delegation to the East Asia Summit in Brunei before going on to Thailand and Vietnam. Obama's long-scheduled trips to Bali and Brunei remain in doubt.
It is not the first time domestic concerns have got in the way of his Asian travel plans. In 2010, two separate trips had to be rescheduled due to an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and a push to get his health care bill through congress - the same legislation that is behind the latest crisis. His planned trips to Malaysia - the first by an American president since 1966 - and the Philippines will instead be made by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel. As when former president Bill Clinton had to pull out of an Apec summit in Japan in 1995 due to the last government shutdown, holes have been blown in US claims to be the most viable global leader.
America's troubles give a sense to outsiders that its political system is flawed, and standing up regional leaders suggests its foreign policy is broken. Obama's much-vaunted pivot to Asia is said to be about counterbalancing China's rising might. Events this week seem to show China stealing a march.