Nusa Dua (Indonesia) (AFP) – Most Asia-Pacific leaders, themselves blooded in political trench warfare, sympathize with U.S. President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to desert his Washington fox-hole while grand strategic shifts take place on the other side of the world.
But there is unease among many countries that the policy paralysis in Washington could cause casualties far and wide — the more so if the U.S. government’s default time-bomb blows up in mid-October.
With Obama absent from a pair of Asian summits this week, China took the spoils on an empty battleground.
President Xi Jinping stressed the expanding reach of China’s trade and investment across Asia at a moment when several countries such as U.S. ally Singapore fretted that the United States appeared dangerously distracted.
“I’m sure the Chinese don’t mind that I’m not there right now,” Obama told a White House news conference Tuesday, castigating the Republicans over the budget crisis.
Obama denied that his failure to come to Asia would inflict “lasting damage,” calling the United States “the one indispensable nation.”
But he conceded: “I should have been there.”
Asia security expert Carl Thayer of Australia’s University of New South Wales concurred that Obama’s no-show at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Bali, and at an East Asia summit opening Wednesday in Brunei, was a “missed opportunity.”
He said the president could have personally pressed U.S. economic and military interests, with the next Asia summit not coming for another year.
As it was, Obama’s presidential imprint was missing from talks in Bali on a grand trade pact with 11 other economies called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Matthew Goodman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said the president’s absence “took some of the wind out of the sails” of the TPP negotiation.
“But (there was) not necessarily permanent damage. I think this can be repaired,” said Goodman, who is Obama’s former coordinator for APEC.
He agreed with Thayer that Obama would have to return to Asia well before the next round of summits in late 2014 to make up for this week’s cancellations.
Obama was also forced to skip visits to Malaysia and the Philippines. Secretary of State John Kerry came to Asia in his stead, but the cancellation nixed the signing of a military pact in Manila designed to assure the Philippines of U.S. support against the resurgent China.
But Kerry — who to some Asians’ chagrin has expended more diplomatic effort on the Middle East than Asia — acknowledged that there was a “cost” attached to Obama’s inability to nudge global affairs forward by meeting the likes of Xi or Russian President Vladimir Putin this week.
Putin echoed many APEC leaders in saying that Obama had no choice but to stay home, underscoring the global influence of the world’s largest economy and the controller of the world’s reserve currency.
Above all it is the economic fallout of the political crisis that is worrying leaders in Asia and beyond as a once-unthinkable scenario looms: the possibility that the U.S. government might default on its colossal debts unless Congress raises the federal borrowing limit by October 17.
But the longer-term strategic calculation is not far from their thinking either.
While expressing sympathy for Obama’s domestic travails, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said “no other country can replace” U.S. engagement in Asia, “not China, not Japan, not any other power.”
“That is something which we continue and encourage at every opportunity,” he added.
China is seen in parts of Asia as dictating terms from a position of strength, laying claim to territory across the entire South China Sea to the shores of the Philippines.
In Brunei, Obama will be unable to lend his authority towards the U.S. goal of prodding Beijing into accepting a binding “code of conduct” to limit the threat of confrontation with rival claimants.
US interests will only suffer irreparable harm if the political deadlock sends the economy into a death-spiral that necessitates a reduction in Washington’s military footprint in Asia, according to Ian Storey of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
But he stressed: “In the short term, it makes Obama look weak and hamstrung by his political opponents, while Xi and Li (Keqiang, the Chinese premier) look like the leaders of a superpower in waiting.”
The message from Xi to Asia has been unmistakeable: work with us for your own good.
“China cannot develop in isolation of the Asia-Pacific and the Asia-Pacific cannot prosper without China,” he said at APEC, while vowing to “firmly uphold regional peace and stability.”
The United States, however, is counting on new fears growing from China’s rise — and old alliances borne from what Kerry called “the blood and the treasure that we expended” on Asian battlefields over many decades.