Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak attend Malaysia China Economic Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Friday. (Vincent Thian / Associated Press)
Beijing — President Barack Obama has called off a trip to Asia just as China’s president is being feted in regional capitals ahead of summits where the U.S. no-show will give China a chance to shine and boost its influence.
The cancellation of Obama’s trip because of the partial government shutdown will also undermine the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to Asia in which the U.S. has sought to focus on building economic ties with Asia and boosting its security presence in the region.
But with Washington’s foreign policy still dominated by the turbulent Middle East, questions have been raised about Obama’s commitment to Asia. Meanwhile, new Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been visiting Indonesia and Malaysia to improve Beijing’s image at a time when its aggressive stance on territorial issues has strained ties with some countries.
“It shows that China has a functional government and America doesn’t at the moment,” said Kerry Brown, a China expert at the University of Sydney. “It’s just another sign that America is kind of losing its luster, losing its status.”
The White House said Thursday that Obama was canceling his trip to Asia because of the partial government shutdown, after already shortening the tour from four countries to two. The White House had hoped Obama could attend two economic summits in Indonesia and Brunei, but he decided to skip the entire trip to stay in Washington to work to reopen the government.
In Asia, Xi was already well-placed to fill the void. In Indonesia earlier this week, lawmakers applauded after he became the first foreign leader to address Parliament, making a call for greater cooperation that he kicked off with an informal greeting in the local Bahasa Indonesian language — a rare display of oratorical skill for a Chinese leader.
Then Xi went to Malaysia, where he and his photogenic first lady met with Prime Minister Najib Razak and they were given a ceremonial welcome at Parliament on Friday that included a military honor guard and a 21-gun salute.
Xi has also proffered plenty of goodwill during his trips: In Indonesia, he signed deals worth billions of dollars, while in Malaysia, he’s agreed to boost military cooperation and training to fight transnational crime and terrorism.
The Malaysian leader’s administration had, until days ago, been looking forward to welcoming a U.S. president to the country for the first time since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. Then the White House announced earlier this week Obama would be unable to visit Malaysia and the Philippines because the shutdown was affecting staffers who were needed to set up the trips.
While other nations will be sending prime ministers or presidents to the economic forums, Washington has now tapped Secretary of State John Kerry to fill in for Obama. Kerry will also be visiting Malaysia and the Philippines.
International relations experts in Asia said the cancellation showed a weakening of U.S. leadership globally as Washington is forced to shift its focus to dealing with thorny domestic problems.
“If they can furlough jobs, cease government services and risk a downgrade in the country’s credit rating, American politicians may start finding it tough to be consistent in their political reassurances about U.S. commitment toward faraway Asia,” Singapore Institute of International Affairs Chairman Simon Tay wrote.
Jeff Kingston, a specialist on Southeast Asia and Japan at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, said the cancellation sends “a troubling message that China is reliable and steady and always there, and American attention seems to be episodic and drifting.”
Obama canceled trips to Asia twice in 2010, first to stay in Washington for votes on his health care law and later because of a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In Manila, retired U.S. Adm. Dennis Blair, the former head of the U.S. Pacific Command, played down the impact and said the visit could wait until a time when Obama could give the region his full attention.
“The United States has been here in this region in a major economic, diplomatic, military and influential way ever since 1944 and that situation has not changed,” he said.
Still, the cancellation has been particularly disappointing to Southeast Asian nations that look to the U.S. as a counterweight in their territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea. The Philippines, which has turned to the U.S. to build its ill-equipped defense forces amid increasingly acrimonious territorial rifts with China in the disputed waters, did not hide its disappointment.
“Given the importance of U.S. policy in the region, we hope that the domestic issues in Washington can be resolved at the soonest possible time so that we can welcome President Obama to the region,” said Ricky Carandang, a spokesman for President Benigno Aquino III.
China claims most of the sea on historical grounds, but Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan all disagree. A number of maritime incidents between China and its neighbors have raised concerns about potential violence.
In Japan, which has sparred with China in a separate territorial dispute, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga urged the U.S. government and Congress to resolve the budget crisis as soon as possible to prevent its economic impact from spreading to other countries.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa played down the significance of Obama’s trip cancellation.
“Of course it would be wonderful to have the president of the United States participate” in the economic forum in Bali, Natalegawa said. “But at the same time, the nature of U.S. engagement in the region is a continuous, not event-based, fact.”