KUALA LUMPUR: Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks with Malaysia’s leader yesterday as part of a Southeast Asian charm offensive, with analysts saying he had the floor to himself after 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 behaviour in asserting its claims to waters and islands in the South China Sea.
But Xi, addressing reporters after meeting Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, said China was committed to closer cooperation with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (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 next 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 cancellation reduces the visibility of the American role in Asia,” he said.
A Brunei foreign ministry official said yesterday the move was “disappointing”.
“Not just for those in diplomatic circles, but for a small country to host the president of the United States is a source of excitement, particularly someone of Obama’s celebrity,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Xi is on his first trip to Southeast Asia since he took China’s helm in March.