WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama’s decision to cut short a trip to Asia next week because of the government shutdown is a setback to the administration’s efforts to focus on the economic and strategically important region.
Obama decided Wednesday to go ahead with his planned trip to Indonesia and Brunei for Asian summits, but he will cancel planned stops in Malaysia and the Philippines to return home. The White House attributed the cancellation to logistics involved in staffing the last two stops of the trip and blamed House Republicans for the move.
“This completely avoidable shutdown is setting back our ability to promote U.S. exports and advance U.S. leadership in the largest emerging region in the world,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that the rest of the trip was on, at least for now.
“It’s an important responsibility of a president to travel and conduct foreign policy, to conduct discussions about economic growth and investment in the United States,” Carney said, adding that the two summits “offer both economic opportunities and security opportunities.”
The administration’s push to turn to Asia – dubbed the Asia pivot – already had been questioned in the region amid worries that budget woes, the sequester and continuing turmoil in the Middle East will sap U.S. commitment to the countries that share the region with an increasingly assertive China.
“The narrative is building pretty strongly that the pivot has lost its mojo because there is no champion,” as there was with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said Michael Green, a former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under George W. Bush and senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He noted that Obama “barely mentioned Asia in passing” at the United Nations last week and that the situation with Syria has some in the region questioning “whether the U.S. has the willpower to honor its security commitments.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has made three trips to the region, and though a cancellation would be seen as “undeniably negative,” U.S. history shows that missteps can be rectified, Green said. He noted that President Bill Clinton skipped the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting in 1995 as Republicans threatened a government shutdown but was able to mend fences during a trip to Japan and Korea in April 1996.
Obama twice canceled trips to Asia in 2010 because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the health care debate.
“These things can be quite consequential and have lasting strategic implications,” Green said of missed meetings, noting that China could look to use the situation to raise doubts about U.S. staying power. “But it is also possible to recover, if the president is seen to come in swinging with some deliverables and rescheduled trips in the months ahead.”
The State Department announced that Secretary of State John Kerry would travel to both countries. The White House said that Obama told Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Philippines President Benigno Aquino that he’d commit to traveling to the countries “later in his term.”