Tempest in a Teacup

Five reasons why canceling Obama's Asia trip is no big deal.


Asia watchers have furiously proclaimed that President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel his upcoming trip signifies the decline of U.S. influence in the Pacific and a boon to China. Obama was supposed to visit Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Brunei from Oct. 6 to Oct. 12, attending summits in the latter two countries. By skipping the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) and the leaders’ meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to focus on the U.S. government shutdown, Asia watchers allege, Obama’s much-heralded "rebalance" or "pivot" to Asia is kaput. This means China, according to analysts like Ian Storey, "will have the floor to itself."

Let’s not overreact. U.S. budget cuts and policy drift may call into question the six-decade role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific — missing these events will not. Yes, it would have been better for Obama to join his fellow Asian leaders for several days of schmoozing. But Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to those four countries instead of Obama; ongoing negotiations and dialogues on security and economics will continue. When the shutdown ends, and the government returns to business as usual, Obama’s cancellation will be quickly forgotten.

Here are five reasons why the furor over the president canceling his trip is overblown.

1. It doesn’t change America’s presence in Asia.

The bedrock of U.S. policy is its diplomatic relationships and alliance structure — which the cancellation will not affect. None of the roughly 330,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel assigned to Pacific Command will disappear, nor will any of the dozens of U.S. embassies and consulates in Asia close.

What does threaten the U.S. position in Asia, however, is dysfunction in Washington. In the short term, the shutdown constrains the State Department’s ability to run embassies and provide consular services, like visa processing. More worryingly, over the next decade the U.S. government will cut over $1 trillion from the budget of the U.S. military and diplomatic corps. Because of this, the U.S. military will be less able to fulfill its basic commitments and responsibilities — it’s already cutting back on things like training schedules, joint exercises, and regular flying hours. And a smaller State Department budget means reducing the number and scope of cultural exchange programs, conferences, and student exchanges, making it harder for the United States to build grassroots connections with Asian nations. Moreover, the shutdown embarrasses U.S. leaders visiting the region, who have to try and explain the gridlock to their Asian counterparts.

2. Nothing happens at these summits, anyway.

While Asian leaders will, of course, notice Obama’s absence, both APEC and ASEAN are talk shops. U.S. allies and partners value them — which is why American officials attend — but everyone understands the summits are merely photo-ops. Missing the meetings will not isolate the United States from the major events or trends in Asia.

3. Asians had already formed their impressions of the pivot.

And the cancellation won’t change them. Countries like the Philippines, which have asked for more U.S. help in their territorial disputes with China, will see Obama’s absence as proof that his Asia policy is increasingly adrift. But others will see this year’s numerous visits to Asia by U.S. officials — including three by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel — as evidence that Washington remains committed to rebalancing. The early October meeting in Tokyo between Kerry, Hagel, and their Japanese counterparts, for example, resulted in the United States receiving permission to base drones and a second early-warning radar system in Northeast Asia. These will help the Pentagon monitor North Korea, and share information with allies seeking to protect their disputed territories from Chinese pressure. On the other side of the spectrum, regardless of whether or not Obama visits Asia, the Chinese will continue to feel that the pivot is an attempt to contain them.

4. China’s tensions and territorial disputes with its neighbors will not magically disappear.

The last several years have seen growing concern among Asian-Pacific nations like Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines that China is using its military to assert its sovereignty over contested islands in the Pacific. With the Chinese navy conducting exercises at the edge of the South China Sea, even formerly unconcerned nations like Malaysia now have cause to worry. China’s refusal at the 2012 ASEAN summit to allow the adoption of a code of conduct for the South China Sea remains a sore spot.

Even if Obama showed up, the spotlight would still be on Beijing — which needs to recover the influence it has squandered by bullying its neighbors in past multilateral meetings. China’s President Xi Jinping may overplay his hand by seeming too domineering. However, if he skillfully portrays China as a responsible and cooperative actor, there will be more of a need for Obama to ensure that U.S. budget cuts don’t undermine its ability to promote development, civil society, and security through aid and assistance, military ties, and grassroots programs.

5. Asia’s political leaders are adults.

They understand that domestic politics take priority. Asian heads of state have already adjusted to Obama’s absence, and look forward to seeing him at the meeting in 2014. And they understand the importance of political theater, whether that takes the form of dramatic negotiations to save the government, or statements designed to scare the public that everything is falling apart. What they do worry about is a United States that reduces its permanent military presence and has no clear policy in Asia to support friends, increase prosperity, and maintain stability. That’s what matters — not Obama’s absence at a meeting.

Michael Auslin is the Payson J. Treat distinguished research fellow in contemporary Asia at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics. He co-hosts The Pacific Century podcast at Hoover.

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