How the shutdown is hurting U.S. foreign policy

October 4, 2013

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, shakes hands with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta, which President Obama was also scheduled to visit before he canceled his upcoming trip. (Oscar Siagian/Getty Images)

When President Obama last traveled across Southeast Asia, in a trip two years ago designed to show his commitment to entrenching U.S. influence there, his administration's "pivot to Asia" was stymied almost immediately by events in the Middle East. The Arab Spring was setting the region aflame. Obama's goals of offsetting Chinese power, rallying rising East Asian economies under American stewardship and securing a role in this increasingly important corner of the world would all have to wait.

Obama was to try again in Asia, this coming week, with a tour of four Southeast Asian countries and an appearance at a regional economic summit in Bali. But, much as in 2011, the re-pivot to Asia is being stalled before it's even really begun -- this time distracted not by problems in Middle East but by the United States' own Congress. The shutdown of the U.S. federal government, due to Congress's failure to pass a budget, forced the White House to cancel the president's trip. Obama's Asian ambitions, once more, have been set aside.

U.S. foreign policy is of course larger than a week-long presidential trip, which would surely have been more symbolic than substantial. But the value, in many ways, lay precisely in the symbolism, signaling to China that it would have to accommodate a long-term U.S. presence in its neighborhood and to China's neighbors that they could count on U.S. support and leadership.

This is not the first time the administration has felt compelled to pull back from its long-held hope of engaging more fully in East Asia. Obama delayed his 2010 trip to the region twice, both times over domestic issues. At some point, the delays risk sending the message that the United States is unwilling, or unable, to commit itself in Asia. Regional leaders may see more advantage in hedging instead toward China -- whose regional influence, however unpalatable for those states, they can at least count on.

The window for establishing the United States as a Pacific great power could, at some point, close, or at least narrow. As China steps up its military and economic involvement in the region, neighboring countries must weigh their response. Many are eager to resist China's encroachment, but they're not strong enough to do it individually. In 2011, Burma suddenly pulled back from Beijing after years as a client, both because it felt abused by China and because it could choose the alternative of rapprochement and economic opening with the West. Vietnam and Malaysia are currently pushing back against Chinese maritime territorial claims, but at some point China's strength may be too much for them to resist on their own.

Resistance to being pulled into Beijing's expanding orbit gets much easier for East Asian countries if they believe they can gather under regional U.S. leadership, as both an organizing force and a counterbalance to China. But that requires believing that the United States will be there for the long haul, which gets tougher every time Obama's seat at a major summit or meeting goes empty or is filled by a lower-level official.

The United States' absences in the region are China's opportunity. Obama was scheduled to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bali, Indonesia, next week. On Thursday, as the White House announced that he would not go, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Bali a few days ahead of time. Uncharacteristically for China's traditionally undiplomatic leader, Xi was in town early to address the Indonesian parliament -- opening his speech with a few words in the country's official language, Bahasa.

An example of the sorts of choices Asian leaders face is playing out right now in Malaysia. Politics there is divided over the Trans Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-championed trade deal meant to encourage Asian countries to link their economies more closely with the United States'. Prime Minister Najib Razak is under pressure to abandon it; Obama's now-canceled visit to the country, and all the photo ops it would have entailed, could have strengthened Najib's position. But with Obama too busy wrestling with Congress to make it out to his part of the world -- the supposed focus of future U.S. foreign policy -- Najib is on his own.

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Max Fisher · October 4, 2013