HONG KONG — When President Barack Obama announced that he was canceling his trip to Asia due to the US government shutdown, commentators reacted as if he had said that America was giving up, going home, and abandoning its Asian friends and allies to China.
“China steps in to fill Obama’s vacuum,” ran one typical headline in The Australian. An analyst in the Wall Street Journal said the decision shows that America is “politically dysfunctional” and “not as committed to Asia as the Obama administration would have us believe.”
Most colorfully, Brazilian analyst Pepe Escobar compared China’s "offensive" in Southeast Asia to “an accelerating Lamborghini Aventador,” in contrast to America’s “creaking Chevrolet.”
But is it really as bad as all that? After all, America is still attending the Indonesia and Brunei summits that Obama had to miss. (Secretary of State John Kerry has eagerly taken the lead of the US delegations.)
And while it’s disappointing that Obama will not be appearing in person to the make the case for US interests — particularly the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership, a massive free-trade deal — is his absence really enough to change America's position in the region?
There are several reasons to think it won’t.
First, America’s stock has risen markedly in East and Southeast Asia over the last several years. As China’s power has grown, and Beijing has become increasingly assertive in its claims over the South China Sea, neighbors have turned more to the United States as a counterbalance. Edward Luttwak, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees this as a logical response to China’s continuing military and economic growth.
“In that context the US is clearly winning as it increasingly benefits from the perception of China as a threat that Chinese diplomacy fails to mitigate (and even makes worse at times),” he says. “Except for Cambodia, for which Vietnam is the more immediate threat, every other country near China is now an American ally in some substantive way, whether or not there are any treaties, or indeed any formal recognition at all of any sort of relationship. Moreover, these substantive security relations are growing steadily."
As concerns about China’s disproportionate economic and military clout are unlikely to go away, most Asian countries will continue to seek closer American ties.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long underscored the region's desire for American attention at the Indonesia summit this weekend, saying that the US “has to continue to be engaged in this region because it plays a very important role which no other country can replace. Not China. Not Japan. Not any other power.”
Of course, it's in this respect that Obama's no-show does hurt: it feeds fear that America's commitment to Asia is wavering, leaving allies to fend for themselves.
As Edward Friedman, China foreign policy expert at the University of Wisconsin, says, “the Obama no-show adds to the voices anxious about Chinese expansion who are saying that the US will not balance China, that a giant, assertive China cannot be balanced, that the only ‘choice’ is surrender to the [Chinese Communist Party] regime and cutting the best deal possible.”
But for the moment, the reality is that US military and economic involvement in Asia is growing, and America's allies understand that.
Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy says that the president's no-show "will not alter the momentum of US rebalancing, especially in the defense and security areas."
Missing one trip is no catastrophe, but it is a setback.
“Obama has fumbled the Asia ball to the extent that President Xi Jinping has been able to make considerable political and economic mileage from this error," Thayer said.
"But China has not scored a touchdown. Obama can recover the Asian engagement ball and go back on the offensive.”
Patrick Winn contributed reporting from Bangkok.