President Obama’s overtures to Asia have been built on the twin premises that the United States will be a reliable partner and that its democratic values are to be emulated.
But Obama now finds himself preparing to leave for a week-long trip to the region amid the first U.S. government shutdown in 17 years — and facing political pressure to remain in Washington during the crisis.
It marks a potential embarrassment for a president who has expressed a personal interest in strengthening the United States’ position in Asia.
Senior administration officials insisted publicly Tuesday that the trip, which is scheduled to begin Saturday, remained a go. But privately they said they were considering whether the trip to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines can go forward as planned, given logistical constraints with a reduced staff.
“We’re hoping — it’s only Tuesday — that the government will open,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. The Asia trip “is an enormous opportunity for the United States economically and for the American people, and he will continue to pursue it.”
Foreign policy analysts said it would be a missed opportunity if domestic politics forced Obama to scuttle the visit, which includes attendance at a pair of regional economic and security summits and an appearance at a global entrepreneurship meeting.
The administration has “made a significant commitment that the president is going to show up at these events every year,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It would be a really serious loss of face if he didn’t go.”
The domestic fight over the budget is the latest potential setback in Obama’s engagement in Asia, a rapidly growing region where the United States is increasingly competing for influence with a rising China. In 2010, the president twice canceled a trip to Indonesia and Australia — first to remain in Washington for a vote on his landmark health-care initiative and then to deal with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Obama then set up a trip to Indonesia, South Korea and Japan for November of that year. But after a disastrous midterm election cycle for Democrats in which they lost control of the House, White House aides debated canceling the trip — an idea Obama rejected, said Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council.
“These trips are important ways to advance U.S. interests,” Vietor said Tuesday.
In 2011, the administration announced its “pivot to Asia,” a broad refocusing of U.S. foreign policy away from long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and toward economic and diplomatic opportunities to the east. Obama made a nine-day trip to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia, departing Washington as a congressional “supercommittee” unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a debt-reduction deal.
Last year, shortly after winning reelection, Obama traveled to three Asian countries, including Burma, where he hailed a renewed diplomatic relationship with the long-closed authoritarian nation. The thrill was cut short when Obama, arriving in Cambodia the next day for a summit, dispatched then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was traveling with him, to the Middle East amid fierce fighting along the Gaza Strip.
Michael Green, a director of Asian affairs under President George W. Bush, recalled that President Bill Clinton was forced to cancel a trip to an economic summit in Japan in 1995 because of a U.S. government shutdown that year.
“The White House is probably looking seriously at canceling, but I think that would be a mistake,” said Green, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The narrative already is growing in Asia that in the second term, with Clinton gone, there is no one in the senior administration focused on Asia.”