BALI, Indonesia — The United States isn’t backing away from Asia, Secretary of State John F. Kerry insisted Saturday, as President Obama’s canceled Asian trip set his policy “pivot” toward the region onto the back foot.
Acknowledging that Obama is missing opportunities for direct diplomacy with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and others attending a series of international trade and cooperation meetings, Kerry was at pains to tell Asian leaders that they should not read too much into the absence.
That left Kerry, as Obama’s stand-in, arguing that the United States is every bit as committed to Asia as the president’s first-term promises led many in the region to believe, and that the government shutdown that led Obama to stay home threatens America’s reputation abroad.
Republicans should “think long and hard about the message that we send to the world when we can’t get our own act together,” Kerry said at a news conference on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.
But the shutdown is a temporary “moment in politics” that other world leaders understand does not diminish American commitment or trustworthiness, Kerry said.
Obama has canceled previous trips to Asia, although he and top U.S. officials have also made a point of showing up for Asian events and stressing that the United States is a “Pacific power.”
Kerry implicitly addressed the contest with China that underlies questions about Obama’s commitment to smaller, militarily weak Asian nations that have many reasons to side with China in trade and security matters.
“As the world takes stock of who stands for what, and who’s fighting for what and who’s pushing what values, I believe the United States still stands tall,” Kerry said. “When we get this moment of political silliness behind us, we will be back on a track that the world will respect and want to be part of.”
Asian leaders have been mostly diplomatic about the Kerry-for-Obama substitution.
“President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressed his full understanding of the situation as we have all been following closely the developments in Washington,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said at the APEC meeting on this Indonesian resort island.
But commentators across the region have called Obama’s absence a missed opportunity and a setback for the long-term U.S. goal of a building a network of alliances as a counterweight to a rising China.
“Mr. Obama’s pivot, after all, primarily gave a political reassurance the U.S. commitment remains,” including militarily, Singapore Institute of International Affairs chair Simon Tay wrote Saturday in Singapore’s Today newspaper.
“A subtext has emerged to question if the pivot will be sustained,” in Obama’s second term, Tay wrote, “and even if sustained American engagement may no longer be as welcome.”
The skipped trip sets back Obama’s efforts to secure a signature trans-Pacific free trade deal, Tay and others noted, even as China appears ready to offer a generous trade upgrade to Southeast Asian neighbors.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman accompanied Kerry on Saturday and said that the administration is working hard on the trade deal.
The Obama administration has made no secret of its effort to knit together new Asian partners, while Obama has made a particular effort to set U.S. relations with China on firmer political and economic footing.
Obama’s unusual California invitation to Xi this past summer was an example.
U.S. military relations with China have lagged, in part out of mutual suspicions about each nation’s ultimate goals in the East and South China Seas. The United States and nervous Southeast Asian states fear a grab for military influence and resources; China fears that the United States, with its far superior military, is trying to “encircle” and contain China.
Xi is courting Indonesia, Malaysia and other nations China sees at risk of tipping too far into the U.S. orbit, while freezing out the Philippines. China gets most of its oil imports through the Straits of Malacca, which Indonesia and Malaysia abut. Xi is visiting both countries around the APEC meeting. Obama had planned to visit Malaysia next week.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Friday said the cancellation “is not good for America,” in part because of the lost opportunities to push trade ties with some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
He blamed Republicans and stepped around the politically delicate question of whether Obama is leaving vulnerable Asian partners hanging.
Kerry will be an able stand-in, Carney said. But unlike Obama, Kerry is a frequent traveler to Asia. Moreover, a meeting with the top American diplomat is not the same as a meeting with the American president.
The slight was apparent even in the White House statements about Obama’s apologetic calls to the leaders he was standing up.
While Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak “expressed his understanding and said that he looked forward to welcoming the president to Malaysia in the near future,” the White House said, there was no such note of understanding from Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
“The President reaffirmed our strong alliance with the Philippines and respect for President Aquino’s leadership, and committed to travel to the Philippines later in his term,” the White House said.
The Philippines, a longtime U.S. ally and home to U.S. military bases, has been the most forceful Southeast Asian nation in challenging China’s seaborne ambitions and territorial claims. Manila did so with strong U.S. encouragement and assurances of continued political and military support, of which Obama’s presence would be tangible evidence.
Simon Denyer in Beijing contributed to this report.