The true magnitude of the intransigence of a handful of Tea Party Republicans in Washington is starting to make itself felt in the Asia Pacific region. At a time when China is launching a major regional charm offensive in the person of its new president Xi Jinping, right-wing Republicans back in Washington are busy undoing years of work trying to improve the US profile in Asia.
President Barack Obama was supposed to appear this week during the crucial summit season in Asia that includes the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit, meeting this year in Bali, where he was to meet with other world leaders including Xi. Instead, Obama was forced to send his Secretary of State, John Kerry, who offered lame excuses about the president’s embarrassing absence.
Obama is also missing a separate East Asian summit this week, which will be held in Brunei. Xi is attending both summits in addition to last week’s state visits to Malaysia and Indonesia.
The Republicans have in effect handed Xi a massive public relations victory. In addition, not only is the Obama administration’s rebalancing to Asia knocked backwards, so is the far-reaching TransPacific Partnership trade deal, which has been more than four years in the making. Obama was due to negotiate with numerous leaders on the TPP this week. Visits to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are giving Xi the chance to dominate headlines, cut deals, promise the moon and, more importantly, look like a leader whose country understands diplomacy.
The headlines in the Chinese-language press in Beijing this morning tell the story:
- Xi attends APEC summit in Bali to describe China’s reform roadmap, meets top officials from Hong Kong and Taiwan
- Malaysia forms strategic partnership with China, strengthening nation’s first alliance in the ASEAN region, aims $160 bn bilateral trade by 2017
- Xi meets with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to highlight cooperation in high speed railway and irrigation projects, requests that NZ PM ensure dairy quality
The Americans, meanwhile, are arguing about which National Park to open as the Republicans, oblivious and even hostile to the national interest, make Washington appear to be an unreliable ally whose "pivot" to Asia could disappear any time the US Congress fails to behave sensibly.
There is little doubt that Obama had to stay home this week given this manufactured domestic crisis, but the sad fact is that while he is trying to babysit a gang of ignorant Republican juvenile delinquents, China, which has acted like a bully in the South China Sea for years, looks reasonable and open. Xi is making the nations surrounding the sea forget that it has drawn its ‘nine-dash line’ of hegemony virtually to the shores of most of them. It has laid claim, without allowing for any negotiations, to the valuable mineral rights under the sea and backed those claims up with the threat of naval action as well as threatening free passage on the sea lanes, which the US has pledged to guarantee with the Seventh Fleet.
The pivot — and the TPP to some extent — is an attempt to counter China’s aggression and it has been largely welcomed by most nations in the region, who themselves are nervous about China’s intentions.
Speaking at a Bali meeting of APEC business leaders that Obama had also been scheduled to address, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the president’s no-show was "a very big disappointment to us."
"Obviously we prefer a US government that is working to one that is not. And we prefer a US president who is able to travel and fulfill his international duties to one who is preoccupied with national domestic preoccupations," Lee said.
The Philippines, which is at serious loggerheads with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea, would have received an immeasurable boost from a visit by a traditional ally last week –it didn’t happen. Xi’s influence on Malaysia could have been muted by an Obama visit — it also didn’t happen. In Indonesia, the key regional player, Obama is a massive star because of his boyhood roots in the country. Xi would have been nearly invisible with Obama in town. Instead, he is the star of the show.
Summits like APEC — especially APEC — are really just forums for talk and little action. No irreparable harm has been done to US influence and relative power but the fact that the US consistently cannot get its business done in Washington so that its leader can travel to the world’s most dynamic region for summit season sends a serious message: For better or worse, China is the neighbor next door. The US isn’t.