Government Shutdown Impacts U.S. Asia Policy: The Costs of Not Showing Up

Because of the government shutdown and potential looming debt default, President Obama decided to send Secretary of State Kerry as his substitute this week at the East Asia Summit in Brunei and the APEC Leaders Meeting in Bali. He also cancelled planned stops in Malaysia and the Philippines. 

Mr. Obama made clear in a follow-up press conference on October 8th that he knows that this cancelation cost America some prestige and credibility, but he expressed confidence that the harm will be transitory if America can resolve its current political storms. In reality, the damage is far greater than he acknowledged.

Keep in mind that it was the United States under President Clinton that founded the APEC Leaders Meeting in 1992, and that President Obama had the United States join the East Asia Summit on the explicit commitment that he personally would show up every year to participate.  Washington hoped to shape the EAS into an effective forum for addressing security issues in the region. His failure to attend these meetings thus not only removed him from the discussion among top regional leaders of the most important Asian economic and security issues but also damaged his credibility on the priority he gives to Asia itself. 

Perhaps the greatest damage, though, was to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. These are the most important trade negotiations of the Obama presidency in Asia, and the president had personally committed to wrap them up by the end of 2013. His no-show sacrificed the momentum toward that goal. 

The United States is asking all countries to make the necessary but painful concessions to get the TPP negotiations over the finish line. Many national leaders in turn counted on being able to cite pressure from Obama this week to help them convince their own domestic opponents of the need to bend. And there is some feeling in the region that Obama in turn needed the momentum from the Asia trip to help convince the Congress to give him Trade Promotion Authority vital to a successful negotiation. 

Obama’s cancelation threw all of this awry. Malaysia’s ire is even greater because Obama also canceled a planned stop there; Indonesia has had to swallow the third cancelation of an Obama visit to the land where he spent part of his childhood; and the Philippines is deeply disappointed that Obama canceled his planned stop there while Manila is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China.

President Obama’s famed rebalance toward Asia depends on both American actions and U.S. credibility as to its future capability and staying power. Having domestic dysfunction keep President Obama at home trying to reopen the government and to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its national debt has sent a profoundly damaging message to the region. The resulting picture of regional leaders with Xi Jinping in the center and Secretary Kerry on the far margin highlights the resulting cost of this terrible situation, but even President Xi cannot be happy about the prospect that America may not be counted on to contribute effectively to regional stability and prosperity.