As expected, the cancellation of U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia to attend a host of bilateral and regional meetings has been simplistically and sensationally framed as a blow to the administration’s “pivot” to Asia and a victory for an ascendant China.
There is but a grain of truth in all this. Perceptually, Obama’s absence does compound worries about the sustainability of America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific given its fiscal irresponsibility and political dysfunction back home. And substantively, the president has missed a golden opportunity to reiterate his commitment to Asian regionalism as well as shore up key bilateral relationships, most notably with Malaysia and the Philippines.
But while one ought not to understate the significance of Obama’s canceled Asia trip, one should not exaggerate it either as some commentators have done. The trip was canceled under a very unique set of domestic circumstances, and it does not detract from America’s deepening diplomatic engagement with Asia over the past few decades, which has only accelerated under the Obama administration. Furthermore, Washington can still recover from this setback if it plays its cards right.
First, it bears repeating that the decision to nix Obama’s trip was made amid a domestic crisis. The president would have been absent in Washington amid the first government shutdown in almost two decades and an unresolved debt ceiling impasse with Republicans, which the U.S. Treasury Department says could result in a 2008-like financial crisis. The last time the U.S. government shut down in 1995, then-president Bill Clinton was forced to cancel his Asia voyage as well.
Obama has also been much more insistent on traveling to Asia in spite of distractions from other regions relative to his predecessors. He still made his four-day, three-country trip to Asia last year despite a raging conflict in Gaza and a looming fiscal cliff, even though it meant working the phones till the wee hours of the morning to deal with these crises. In contrast, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush canceled trips to Malaysia in 1998 and Singapore in 2007 respectively because they were occupied with the Middle East. The president’s commitment is partly why this trip cancellation was not read as a snub by the region’s leaders as they often were in previous administrations, with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak even admitting that he would have done the same thing if he were in Obama’s shoes.
Second, while the Obama no-show is regrettable, one should not mistake it for the demise of Washington’s “pivot” to Asia. Beyond this single visit, just the deepening diplomatic commitment in the Obama years alone has been unprecedented, with the birth of an annual U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting, the placement of the East Asia Summit on the presidential calendar, and the stationing of a U.S. ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta. Some of these ideas also build off of the policies of previous administrations, which attest to the bipartisan and sustained nature of America’s growing engagement with Asia. One cancelled trip will not change all this.
Furthermore, despite Obama’s absence, other administration officials are also in the region to advance several key initiatives on his behalf. For instance, while some were concerned that the president’s absence would delay talks on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, officials on the ground at APEC say that U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, along with other U.S. negotiators who arrived in Bali before the shutdown on October 1, have in fact been working on a deal with hopes of meeting the year-end deadline. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also just concluded a week-long trip to South Korea and Japan to reaffirm America’s commitment to its two Northeast Asian treaty allies.
Third, beyond optics, it is unclear whether Obama’s absence will truly be a boon for Beijing as much as some have suggested. Though Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first trip to Southeast Asia has received a lot of media attention, the greatest obstacle to better ASEAN-China ties is not the lack of visits or commercial deals, but Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region over the past few years. A series of events, most notably China’s saber-rattling with ASEAN countries in the South China Sea and its role in undermining ASEAN in Phnom Penh in 2012, have caused unease in Southeast Asian capitals about how a much larger and increasingly powerful Beijing will treat its smaller neighbors in the coming years. Upstaging the United States in a round of regional summits will not alter this reality, and removing this obstacle will require a significant policy change on issues like the South China Sea which Beijing shows few signs of undertaking.
Fourth, the administration still has time to recover from this with a few years left in the president’s term. The bilateral trips to the Philippines and Malaysia can be rescheduled, just as was done with those to Indonesia and Australia earlier in the president’s first term. And while regional meetings cannot be postponed, administration officials can place added emphasis on implementing new ideas for such forums in the future. For example, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel can follow through on his invitation to ASEAN defense ministers to visit Hawaii in 2014, which would be the first-ever meeting of its kind hosted by the U.S.
Obama’s decision to cancel his trip to Asia was an unfortunate one with real consequences for the United States. But as Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said after receiving the news, U.S. engagement in the region is “a continuous, rather than an event-based fact.” In leafing through the media coverage on the cancellation, one should not miss the forest for the trees.
Prashanth Parameswaran is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a non-resident WSD-Handa fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. You can read his blog The Asianist at and follow him on Twitter at @TheAsianist.