Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) held talks with Malaysia’s prime minister on Friday as part of a Southeast Asian charm offensive, with analysts saying he had the floor to himself after US President Barack Obama scrapped his own Asia tour.
Xi’s visits to Indonesia and Malaysia and his scheduled attendance at a regional summit next week have taken on added significance with the US president’s decision to stay put due to the budget impasse in Washington.
Some Southeast Asian countries have accused Beijing of increasingly aggressive behavior in asserting its claims to waters and islands in the South China Sea.
Yet Xi, addressing reporters after meeting Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, said China was committed to closer cooperation with the 10-member ASEAN.
“China will continue to provide firm support to the central role of ASEAN in East Asian cooperation and we will be happy to see a greater role played by Malaysia in this region,” Xi said in a joint press appearance with his host.
With Beijing and Washington vying for influence in the strategic region, Obama had planned to get face time with Asian leaders and rub shoulders with Xi at an international summit in Bali this week.
Obama had also planned to visit Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Instead, US Secretary of State John Kerry will take his place, so that Obama can focus on the budget gridlock that triggered the first government shutdown in 17 years.
Analysts said the developments deal a potential blow to the Obama administration’s “pivot” policy -—- the refocusing of its economic and strategic attention on Asia.
Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Obama’s decision “could signal the start of the unravelling of the US pivot to Asia.”
Charles Morrison, president of the Honolulu-based East-West Center, said the episode raised questions over whether the US “can sustain a leadership position.”
“Obama’s trip cancelation reduces the visibility of the American role in Asia,” he said.
Xi is on his first trip to Southeast Asia since he took China’s helm in March. The journey will culminate in his inaugural appearance at the summit of the APEC bloc in Indonesia tomorrow and Tuesday.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) will then represent China at an East Asia summit in Brunei on the following two days. Obama had originally planned to attend both gatherings.
Xi now “has the floor to himself,” while the US budget debacle has made the US look “weak,” said Ian Storey of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
“Meanwhile China looks flush with cash and full of confidence and it is relatively stable at home,” he added.
Despite tensions over maritime claims, Xi’s trip has served to stress the crucial importance of economic ties with China.