With a crisis in Washington, President Obama canceled half of his trip to Asia for next week. He still plans to attend the region’s two big summits of various Asia leaders in Bali and Brunei. Fortunately, more leaders than ever in Asia represent democracies. They, more than the authoritarian rulers, will understand his dilemma.
Asia’s democratic progress in recent decades bodes well for Mr. Obama’s still-unfulfilled plan to turn US foreign policy more toward the region. He has ample backing in Congress for his “pivot” to Asia. And polls show more than half of Americans see the region as the most important part of the world.
Still, US allies in Asia worry about Obama’s staying power. His cancellation of trips to the Philippines and Malaysia sends a symbolic message that the US is not a committed partner or a reliable counterweight to China’s growing military and economic clout.
Of America’s main interests in Asia – stable security, open trade, and an expansion of democracy – security remains the biggest worry. Obama has just begun to enhance the US military presence in the region despite budget cuts. That helps send a signal to China that its recent aggression on disputed islands must stop.
One result is that China has begun talks with Southeast Asian nations on a code of conduct regarding the maritime claims. This suggests China will not take islands by force, an action that could trigger war. But Beijing still has far to go to show its sincerity in resolving the island disputes peacefully according to agreed principles of behavior.
Obama has also quickened the pace of negotiations to create a regional free-trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With Japan now joining the talks, China may eventually be forced to climb on board, further pushing it to cooperate rather than bully its neighbors.
For the US, such a pact would mean the largest free-trade deal in its history, encompassing 40 percent of the world economy. He’ll need strong support in Congress to conclude the deal.
America’s role in Asia should be far more than that of simply a peacekeeper, focused mainly on making the region safe for commerce. Without more progress toward democracy in places such as Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), and even Malaysia, Asia’s security and prosperity will remain shaky. Elected leaders are better able to find the right balance of cooperation and competition between nations.
Democracies are also more sympathetic when a domestic political crisis keeps a US president from attending a summit.