Will shortened Obama trip to Asia buoy China?

Some in the region argue that the cancellation of key stops signals the fading of Obama's 'pivot to Asia' – and opens a door for greater Chinese influence.

Achmad Ibrahim/AP
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, right, talks to Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, upon arriving at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. Xi is making his first visit to Southeast Asia since taking office, arriving Wednesday in Indonesia to boost ties and economic partnerships with the region's biggest country.

President Obama’s trimming of stops on a trip to Asia this month has raised questions locally about the US government’s two-year-old rebalancing of resources to the region, a shift embraced by allies such as Japan and the Philippines as their common rival China looms larger. 

Following a partial shutdown of the federal government this week, the president put off visits with heads of state in Malaysia and the Philippines. He is still evaluating whether to attend economic events in two other Asian countries.

Malaysia and the Philippines have expressed understanding about the change, but regional analysts say the cancellations send a message that the US president doesn’t care, and could shore up support for China.

“Malaysia's kind of ‘whatever,’ but missing the Philippines hurts, as Manila’s been such a key cog in America's Asia pivot wheel,” says Sean King, senior vice president with the political consulting firm Park Strategies in New York and Taipei, Taiwan. “It’s a lost opportunity for sure.”

More broadly, Asian governments, including staunch US allies Japan and South Korea, may take Mr. Obama’s thinned-down trip as a new sign that his rebalancing, or pivot, to Asia is fading after other hints that the world’s biggest continent is no longer such high priority.

Asian countries unsure about the pivot will work more directly with China, analysts say. That shift would help the clout of Asia’s top military and economic powerhouse, whose leadership still takes a dim view of Washington’s geopolitical ambitions.

“This return to Asia cannot last forever, because of US domestic economic and political uncertainties,” says Lin Chong-pin, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “These [Asian] neighbors must recalibrate. They’ll do it gradually and in a new direction.”

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed the pivot to Asia in 2011 to strengthen military and economic alliances, a shift believed aimed at checking the rise of China’s power. China has protested the pivot to US officials.

Ms. Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, appeared to question the rebalancing earlier this year during his confirmation hearing, and now experts say Mr. Obama’s hand has been forced: Even if he wishes to focus on Asia, US political gridlock and conflicts in the Middle East are demanding his attention.

Division in Congress over national healthcare insurance led to missing a deadline to fund the government, shutting down federal services Tuesday for the first time in 17 years. The White House says Mr. Obama scaled back his Asia trip as a result.

Mr. Kerry will go in the president’s place to Malaysia and the Philippines. The president is still studying whether to keep scheduled appearances this month at an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Indonesia and a Southeast Asian leadership event in Brunei.

Perceptions of a pullback from the pivot could prompt southeastern Asian nations like Vietnam to work more closely with China. Vietnam, though distrustful of Beijing, is talking more often with China, Mr. Lin notes.

That would set a trend, experts say, delighting Beijing as it gets a leg up on Washington in forging ties with neighbors that turn to the United States when leery of the communist country’s expansion.

“China is sort of saying ‘we’re pretty confident in what we’re doing,’ ” says Carl Baker, director of programs with the US-based think tank Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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