US President Barack Obama was conspicuous by his absence in Asia this week. And it is an absence which is being vigorously discussed both in Asia and the US due to its ramifications.
Obama was supposed to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum summit which wrapped up in Bali, Indonesia, yesterday. The summit came at a crucial time in Asia-US relations, especially in the context of China’s muscle-flexing in the region, due to border disputes with a number of its neighbours, and Washington’s focus on Asia which holds plenty of promise in wide range of areas. Obama’s presence in this summit was considered crucial because leaders of twenty-one member countries were in attendance, but he was forced to stay in Washington to resolve the raging budget impasse. Secretary of State John Kerry filled in for Obama at the opening of the summit on Monday, but that was a small consolation. China’s President Xi Jinping became the dominant leader at the event devoted to achieving greater economic integration in the region.
Due to Obama’s absence, Washington has lost a golden opportunity to cement ties with its Asian allies. Obama has been absent from the APEC summit meeting two years in a row, which means the US-led effort to form a regional partnership framework through the APEC forum and of promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade talks will likely lose momentum. There is still time to make amends, but the kind of crisis Obama is facing at home raises questions about his ability to pursue with great seriousness the trade objectives Washington has in mind. For example, questions were raised as to how the Obama administration could get its chief economic project in the region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is being negotiated with eleven countries in the region, passed through the House of Representatives where conservative Republicans oppose Obama’s domestic programme. Especially in Asia-Pacific, leaders were unhappy about Obama’s absence though they didn’t express it in public due to the seriousness of the crisis the US is facing. But the media has been more open in its criticism. For example, a Japanese newspaper wrote that “as things stand, China and Russia could take over the leadership of international diplomacy. We are worried about the waning US presence in the international arena.”
It’s not only the summit which Obama missed. During his Asian tour, he was also supposed to visit Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines to reconfirm his policy of “attaching importance to Asia,” something he has been advocating since taking office. Obama needs to address these concerns, and take measures to regain the lost momentum. But everything would depend on how the budget crisis in Washington develops. If the president gets stuck with domestic politics, it will be at the cost of US influence in the world•