US President Barack Obama called off plans to visit Asia and attend two summits because of the US government shutdown, raising questions about the strategic “pivot” to the region that he announced just two years ago.
Obama had planned to depart today for a four-nation, week-long trip. He canceled visits to Malaysia and the Philippines earlier this week because of his budget struggle in the US Congress and said on Thursday he would not attend the regional summits in Indonesia and Brunei.
The political standoff over the US budget has shut down non-essential government services and appeared likely to drag on for another week or longer. Another crisis looms in two weeks when lawmakers must decide whether to increase the US government’s US$16.7 trillion debt borrowing limit.
“The president made this decision based on the difficulty in moving forward with foreign travel in the face of a shutdown, and his determination to continue pressing his case that Republicans should immediately allow a vote to reopen the government,” the White House said.
Obama was scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, among other leaders.
Two of his main aims would have been to discuss the Syria crisis with Putin and to hold talks on a maritime code of conduct for disputed territories in the oil and gas-rich South China Sea.
“We are disappointed,” Indonesian Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring said on the island of Bali, host of the APEC summit starting tomorrow.
“I think the summit will go on, there is a long-term plan, [but] without Obama, you can imagine how disappointed we are. We could hardly imagine he wouldn’t come,” he said.
Obama was also scheduled to attend ASEAN’s East Asia Summit in Brunei next week.
Xi, who was on a visit to Malaysia yesterday, did not comment on Obama’s decision. However, analysts said the no-show by Obama would work to China’s advantage.
“While his decision is perfectly understandable, it projects a poor image of America as a country that is politically dysfunctional and on the verge of another economic crisis,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “Meanwhile, cash-rich and self-confident China will have the floor to itself.”
Obama twice postponed visits to Indonesia and Australia in 2010, because of a health reform bill and then because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. He was absent from the APEC meeting last year in Vladivostok, Russia, because of a Democratic Party convention.
In Tokyo, Japan’s top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said Abe would attend the summits as planned.
“This is a domestic problem of the United States,” he said. “We hope the [Obama] administration and Congress negotiate earnestly to solve the problem as early as possible, so that the problem won’t be affecting various issues.”