Coming on the heels of Mr. Obama’s speech at the United Nations last week in which he suggested the United States would not be shifting its focus from the Middle East anytime soon, the cancellation underscores the view of many Asia experts that Obama’s plans to “rebalance” US strategic and economic capital toward Asia are in danger.
"The narrative is building pretty strongly that the pivot has lost its mojo,” says Michael Green, a former Asia adviser in the George W. Bush White House who is now a senior vice president at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The UN speech only adds to concerns across Asia that US budget cuts and replacement of an Asia-focused Hillary Rodham Clinton by the more Middle East-centered John Kerry are taking the steam out of Obama’s first-term focus on Asia, Mr. Green says.
But even if Obama’s UN speech raised eyebrows in Asia, the more important threat by far to America’s standing in that region comes from the political turmoil in Washington that is behind the president’s cancelled Asia trip, others say.
“It’s possible for the US to walk and chew gum at the same time [so] the Middle East is not the big problem,” says Ken Lieberthal, a former senior director for Asia in the Clinton National Security Council and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The real problem is the political dysfunction in Washington and what that signals to the region.”
The president's cancelled trip is one high-profile effect of the political crisis, but other examples – US trade officials who are unable to travel to negotiations as a result of reduced budgets, for example – are altering regional assessments of America’s long-term commitment, Mr. Lieberthal says.
Across-the-board budget cuts known as the “sequester,” plus the government shutdown over a bitter spending dispute, are prompting speculation that the US military footprint in Asia could be reduced and that America’s economic clout in the region could suffer as well.
“The question is our ability to implement the rebalance to Asia and, more long-term, the question is about our staying power,” Lieberthal says.
The White House first announced Wednesday that Obama would drop stops in Malaysia and the Philippines from the back end of what was to be an eight-day trip to Asia. Then, late Thursday, the White House said Obama would forego an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Indonesia and an East Asia Summit in Brunei.
Secretary of State Kerry, already in Tokyo as part of an Asia trip, will now extend his travel to make the stops in Kuala Lumpur and Manila that Obama has canceled. Kerry, who already planned to accompany Obama at the APEC summit, will also now replace him at the East Asia Summit.
Some high-level American representation at such regional gatherings is crucial, experts say, noting that there is no substitute for the president. The president’s absence would stand out as a glaring reminder of all the reasons regional leaders are questioning Obama’s Asia pivot, they add.
At the same time, however, it’s the president’s lieutenants who keep something like the rebalancing to Asia on track, analysts say – and that's something they believe the "pivot" has lost.
“You can recover” from canceled presidential trips, says CSIS’s Green, noting that an APEC summit President Bill Clinton skipped in 1995 over a similar Washington budget stalemate “was largely forgotten.”
Setbacks such as a presidential no-show “can be managed if the president and his team are really focused on the pivot to Asia,” Green says. The larger problem, he adds, is that the pivot is hurting because “it has no champion” in the administration as it did in Obama’s first term.
Obama’s first-term national security adviser, Tom Donilon, kept the “rebalance” going by coordinating diplomatic, military, economic, and trade initiatives toward Asia, Brookings’s Lieberthal says. “He really drove it.”
But new national security adviser Susan Rice “hasn’t dealt extensively with Asia,” Lieberthal says.
At the same time, Mrs. Clinton, who famously declared as secretary of State that “Asia is back” after the Bush administration, has been replaced by Kerry, who is more focused on the Middle East – Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – and has just been tasked by Obama with leading US efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff.
Some Asia analysts note that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has been at the forefront of the administration’s Asia focus. During an August trip to Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines – four of the countries Obama was supposed to take in on his now-canceled trip – Secretary Hagel touted what he called “defense diplomacy.”
Under his concept, the US role would be to encourage multilateral cooperation among Asian partners whose relations have been complicated by territorial and other disputes.
But even that trip’s focus was blurred by events in the Middle East, as Hagel was obliged to spend much of his time addressing the crises in Syria and Egypt.
Despite those distractions, Hagel is emerging as a key player in administration efforts to sustain the pivot. But there’s a downside to a growing association of the Pentagon with Asia policy, some experts say.
“From the Asian perspective, there’s a tipping of the balance toward the military following through, while other dimensions [of the rebalance] are falling off, like trade and diplomacy,” says Lieberthal. “And that’s not well-viewed in the region.”
That’s one reason analysts bemoan Obama’s decision to bow out of the APEC and East Asia summits. The US is part of negotiations for an Asia-Pacific free-trade area called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. But a goal of concluding the 12-country free-trade area by the end of this year was already difficult enough without the added impediment of Washington’s political meltdown.
As Lieberthal says, a dysfunctional relationship between the White House and Congress – which both have roles to play if the TPP is to succeed – could make less likely not just the trade pact, but also a robust and multidimensional pivot to Asia.