Shutting Down Obama in Asia

October 3, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: Southeast AsiaAsia

Shutting Down Obama in Asia

The budget impasse chops a vital presidential visit.

In the days leading up to this week’s government shutdown, speculation mounted about whether the president would cancel his scheduled trip to Asia. In an unsurprising bit of Solomonic decision-making, President Obama cut his trip in half, indefinitely postponing visits to Malaysia and the Philippines. The president will still make stops as planned in Indonesia and Brunei and will participate in the APEC summit meeting.

While many in Asia will be glad to see him in the region, his abbreviated trip and sure-to-be divided attentions may not assuage their fears that the administration’s “pivot” to Asia is as dead as a doornail.

From across the Pacific, the pivot has appeared imperiled for some time. With the departures from government of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, leaders from Singapore to Seoul wondered who in the new administration would champion U.S. policy in Asia (answer: nobody thus far). John Kerry’s obvious and overriding interest in the Middle East did little to put those fears to rest.

The ongoing crisis in Syria, meanwhile, had Asians wondering if America’s renewed focus on Asia was a thing of the past. U.S. allies well understood the need for a vigorous response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but they feared that a reverse-pivot was in the offing.

Washington’s government shutdown, then, is only the latest in a string of developments this year calling into question America’s will and ability to carry out stated policy in the Asia-Pacific.

Between the president’s repeated calls for “nation-building at home” and Congress’s inability to even keep the federal government open for business, foreign partners are right to wonder whether the United States can effect any policy goals beyond its borders.

But even worse is that the president has allowed the shutdown to derail American strategic efforts in Asia. Yes, he will still attend the APEC summit, and that’s a positive. Asian leaders have been fairly unanimous in describing U.S. participation in regional multilateral institutions as important—both for symbolic reasons and to ensure that China does not dominate these high-level dialogues.

Still, it was President Obama’s planned visit to Manila that was, arguably, the most important segment of his trip. Thanks in large part to China’s increasing assertiveness, tensions across Asia are worryingly high. Recent China-Philippines relations have been particularly contentious and have inserted an element of instability into a regional equilibrium that, though not exactly peaceful, has been relatively free of violence.

Manila’s weak air and naval forces have made the country vulnerable, and that vulnerability has invited Chinese aggression in disputed waters near the Philippines. Recently, China has taken control of a disputed shoal, has acted menacingly towards Philippine forces stationed on another, and may have sent fighter jets to intrude into claimed Philippine airspace.

The United States has, at times, been proactive in its dealings with the Philippines. Washington is helping Manila upgrade its maritime forces and the two are engaged in negotiations to enhance American access to Philippine military facilities. President Obama’s visit might have served to further these efforts and would have served a symbolic purpose as well. A demonstration of the president’s personal interest could have imparted momentum to the bilateral relationship, enhanced deterrence, and contributed to stability in the region.

Instead, the narrative in Manila will be that the Philippines, U.S. ally though it is, is not a priority for the American president. Philippine leaders will recall Washington’s hemming and hawing over the mutual defense treaty’s applicability during 2012’s Scarborough Shoal set-to with the Chinese. Perhaps more importantly, China’s leaders will recall it as well.

The U.S. government shutdown and President Obama’s decision to truncate his trip to Asia will not change facts on the ground overnight. They will, however, reinforce two related narratives that have gained purchase in the region: that the pivot is a slogan more than a policy and that the United States is becoming the “paper tiger” that Mao Zedong once described.

Those narratives may not be accurate, but in the realm of geopolitics, perceptions matter. And perceptions can be exceedingly difficult to alter.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @Mike_Mazza