Obama's Asia Trip: Go or No?
October 3, 2013
The White House faces a fundamental dilemma today: Can President Barack Obama leave for his geopolitically vital Asia trip, planned to begin this Saturday, if the U.S. government is still shut down? The stakes are high. The president has already been forced to cancel two of the four stops planned, dropping Malaysia and the Philippines. The White House says the president will still visit Indonesia for the APEC Leaders Meeting and Brunei for the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit.
If Obama does not go to Asia at all, U.S. allies and partners in the region will worry that the United States is incapable of sustaining high-level engagement due to political paralysis at home. Others will read the decision to stay home as weakness. The former will cause hedging behavior by governments worried about U.S. staying power, and the latter may result in more aggressive postures by nations interested in exploring the limits of U.S. determination.
The president’s domestic political advisers will make the case that the trip is impossible if the government is still shut down this weekend. They will argue that he cannot leave the country while hundreds of thousands of government employees are furloughed, federal departments are shuttered, and spin doctors from the opposition are salivating for pictures of him landing in Bali. Obama’s national security and foreign policy teams will not be able to challenge those points, but they will understand the unmistakable damage that canceling his entire trip would do to relationships with Asian partners and to the strategic trust that was hard-earned during the president’s first term.
Obama’s Asia trip is important. It will provide the opportunity to advance U.S. economic engagement in Asia through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, help promote peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas, and reassure Asian countries that he is investing real political capital in a sustainable and comprehensive U.S. engagement of the region.
The current plan has President Obama leaving Washington on October 5 and flying directly to Indonesia and then Brunei. In Indonesia, his visit will be confined to Bali for the October 7–8 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting. He will conduct some bilateral meetings on the sidelines of APEC, but the main headline will be whether he and the leaders of the other 11 countries negotiating the TPP can announce that they have substantially completed their negotiations and are close to an agreement. It seems unlikely, but political commitment by the leaders could bring an agreement closer to the finish line in Bali.
What is certain is that the TPP leaders will question, if Obama is not present, whether he will have the commitment and political capital to get the TPP ratified even if they reach an agreement.
In Brunei on October 9–10, the focus will be on the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the fourth U.S.-ASEAN Summit. By all accounts, Brunei has done a masterful job of managing its year as chairman of ASEAN. It has avoided the controversies Cambodia allowed last year and has ensured that no country can dominate or prevent discussion of key issues such as maritime disputes.
Headlines from Brunei will focus on discussions about (1) progress toward a code of conduct between ASEAN and China to manage disputes in the South China Sea and (2) the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). RECEP at this time includes all of the EAS members except the United States and Russia, which are not currently engaged in RCEP because all negotiating parties must have a free trade agreement with ASEAN.
If Obama is absent from the EAS, China will likely read weakness in the United States’ support for ASEAN. That will undermine the administration’s calls for the speedy conclusion of a code of conduct, convincing Beijing that Washington is too distracted to back up ASEAN with anything but rhetoric. This could reinforce China’s preference for a more aggressive posture on sovereignty disputes whereby Beijing uses its economic heft and growing military capabilities to pressure smaller neighbors to resolve disputes bilaterally and in China’s favor.
In his first term, Obama laid out a strong vision of ASEAN as the fulcrum of a developing regional security and trade architecture to define the Indo-Pacific in the twenty-first century. This approach invested the United States in ASEAN-centric structures like the EAS, identifying them as important regional frameworks for trade and security. It signaled a U.S. commitment to help those structures attain sufficient geostrategic and commercial weight to convince all countries, including China and India, to sit at the same table and collectively make and follow the rules that will define security and commerce.
A strong, integrated ASEAN is foundational for U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific. The United States is therefore seeking to deepen its engagement with the grouping and work with other partners to strengthen ASEAN. At the same time, it continues to elevate its relationships with treaty allies in Asia—Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand—and expand ties with partners such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Obama’s visits to Indonesia and Brunei will help further all of those goals.
If the president is unable to travel to Asia, he will have to decide whether to deploy Vice President Joseph Biden. Unfortunately, Biden is an important, and probably essential, channel to Congress based on his many years as a senator. Secretary of State John Kerry has already been tapped to lead the U.S. delegations to Malaysia and the Philippines following Obama’s cancellation, and he will accompany the president to Bali and Brunei. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman will also be in Bali and will join Kerry in Malaysia along with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. Kerry would be allowed to join the leaders’ meetings at APEC and the EAS, but he would not have the standing of the heads of state or government present. The signal of U.S. political distraction would be unmistakable.
Political reality may dictate that President Obama cannot travel to Asia in October. If so, the United States will need to recover its position over time, but the damage will have been done.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the October 3, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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