How Damaging Is the Cancellation of Obama’s Trip?

Some observers see it as a sign of waning American power in the region. Is that true?

President Obama has finally bowed to the inevitable and cancelled his planned trip to Southeast Asia, which was supposed to begin this weekend and to include visits to the East Asia Summit, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders’ summit, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit, and a global entrepreneurs’ summit in Malaysia. As I noted in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek piece, the president had a lot of items on the planned Asia agenda, including trying to finalize trade talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and using his visit to bolster growing strategic and defense ties with the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, among other Southeast Asian nations.

Despite the fiscal mess in Washington, Obama should have kept at least part of his Southeast Asia itinerary, the trip to Indonesia for the APEC leaders summit, and then immediately flown back to Washington to deal with the standoff with Congress. He could have thus shown that the administration will make good on its promise to re-engage Southeast Asia even during the most challenging times, a reassurance the region needs after President George W. Bush all but ignored Southeast Asia (and Northeast Asia) when the United States became more intensely involved in wars in South Asia and the Middle East. In addition, Obama’s absence likely will complicate Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations further, since only the president has the power with American business groups to push them to make the kinds of concessions on intellectual property needed to pass the TPP. The president’s absence from the region also certainly will make it harder for those in the administration who wanted the president to take a stronger stance in promoting democracy in Malaysia, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

But is the cancellation of Obama’s entire Asia itinerary a disaster, as some analysts have predicted? No. The fact that, as Obama has canceled his Asia trip to deal with the fiscal mess in Washington, Chinese president Xi Jinping is traveling to Southeast Asia, seems to offer a stark symbol of waning American power and dysfunctional American policy-making. [For a summary of this conventional wisdom, read this column.] And to some extent, this symbolism rings true.

But many of the nations in Southeast Asia are democracies, and though they—and most Americans—may think that the American political process is crazy, they do understand that the president has to address domestic priorities first. And one trip by Xi while Obama is not around is not going to alter the fundamental shift in China-ASEAN relations that has taken place over the past five years, as China has increasingly aggressively stated its position on control of the South China Sea, as well as over other disputed islands in Northeast Asia.

China has over the past five years increasingly alienated most of the nations in Southeast Asia, save Malaysia (and to some extent Indonesia) with its behavior regarding the South China Sea. Xi is not going to change that with one visit, just as other senior Chinese officials, who have made multiple visits to Southeast Asia over the past two years, at times when no top American officials were around, also have not smoothed over tensions. The only way for Beijing to do so would be to significantly alter its stance toward resolving the South China Sea standoff, which it shows no intention of doing.

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Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @JoshKurlantzick