Obama no-show isolates allies
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - After weeks of intense build-up for US President Barack Obama's Asian tour, where many expected the American leader to make a strong pitch for a bigger US strategic footprint in the region, an untimely and bitter deadlock in Washington forced the cancellation of his trip.
Amid the first federal government shutdown since the Clinton administration, the White House first announced Obama's decision to skip state visits to Malaysia and the Philippines. Later high-profile visits to Indonesia for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (APEC) and Brunei for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit (ASEAN) were also nixed.
While various Asian partners politely expressed their appreciation
of Obama's domestic priorities, there was a palpable sense of absence. Amid lingering anxieties over US commitment to the region amid oncoming steep defense budget cuts and continued policy priority for crises in the Middle East, many Asian allies had hoped Obama would use his Asia trip to shore up support and signal deeper engagement.
"While politically we understand the reason for the president's decision, of course it is disappointing for all those involved," a Bruneian foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity. "I'm sure people looked forward to the pageantry of a presidential visit."
Among the region's most vocal and pro-active strategic players, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was uncharacteristically straightforward in his assessment. "America has to continue to be engaged in this region because it plays a very important role which no other country can replace, not China, not Japan, not any other power," said Lee.
Obama's no-show in Asia reinforced two fundamental perceptions among allies and adversaries alike. First, it signaled their relative secondary status in Obama's strategic calculus. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the shutdown crisis has laid bare the downside of US democracy, exposing ugly ideological rifts and undermining the credibility of the country's state institutions.
Coupled with an anemic economic recovery, many Asian allies now wonder whether the US has the political or economic wherewithal to serve as an anchor of stability in the Asia-Pacific.
In recent months, Obama had reached out to strategic adversaries, ranging from his early June shirt-sleeved summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the exclusive Sunnylands estate in California, to his historic late-September phone call with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in New York.
In contrast, Obama has yet to visit Manila. While the Philippines holds the world's highest favorable rating (at 85%) towards the US, according to a recent Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, it is also deeply dependent on American military support to confront security challenges on both its southern (Mindanao) and northern fronts (South China Sea).
Obama's scheduled visit to Manila was thus being touted as both a symbolic as well as tangible expression of Washington's commitment to US-Philippines bilateral relations. Shortly ahead of his expected arrival, top Filipino officials expressed hopes that the US leader's visit could coincide with the signing of a new defense framework agreement, which if put to law would allow for an expanded rotational US military presence on Philippine soil, specifically in the Clark and Subic bases.
"[Obama's visit] is quite important because it endorses the value of our relationship," Philippine foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario said during a budget hearing at the Philippine Congress in late-September, reflecting the government's anticipation at the time. "We're hoping to get the framework agreement by that time, but we'll see what happens."
Given growing concerns over the constitutionality of the new proposed strategic agreement with the US, with the Philippine government insisting it is a purely executive agreement that does not require Senate ratification, Filipino officials hoped that Obama's star power would sway the general public and disarm critics in the legislature and civil society.
There is a strong sense of strategic urgency behind the agreement. The Philippines is currently locked in a bitter territorial dispute with China over areas of the South China Sea. In absence of high-level bilateral meetings, communication channels have effectively collapsed.
Reports suggesting China is expanding its fortifications in disputed features such as the Scarborough Shoal and widening its quasi-military patrols in other disputed waters have underscored Manila's impotence in matching China's naval might. Obama's visit could have helped to ease that rising sense of vulnerability and dispelled doubts about Washington's commitment to its treaty ally's national security.
Smaller Southeast Asian states have traditionally sought to balance great powers against one another, cultivating unique relationships with each of them along the way. While the US has been largely treated as a strategic partner crucial to regional stability, China has in turn emerged as a primary economic partner.
Recent years have seen a gradual blurring between military and commercial lines, as both the US and China seek to exert their economic and strategic dominance in the region. The Obama administration has sought to counterbalance China's growing regional clout by combining economic carrots with a bigger military footprint in the region.
"After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region," Obama declared at the Australian parliament in November 2011. "As the world's fastest-growing region the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority, and that's creating jobs and opportunity for the American people."
Obama's chief economic carrot is the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, which aspires to entail one- third of world trade and about 40% of global gross domestic product while excluding China. After 18 rounds of negotiations, however, key political issues concerning restrictions on government procurement, curtailment of consumer access to public services, and imposition of more stringent intellectual property rights have emerged as sticking points. Obama's trip would have provided an opportunity to personally lobby Asian states like Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam, all currently sitting on the fence, to sign on to the TPP.
"The TPP is, on the one hand, designed as a second-best alternative to promote corporate interests via free trade given the stalemate at the [World Trade Organization]. On the other hand, it is a US-led geo-economic enterprise designed to contain China's economic power by excluding it from the preferential advantages that will be enjoyed by members." argues Walden Bello, among Asia's most prominent experts on trade-related issues. "These two objectives are at cross-purposes. China does not even have to initiate a counter-bloc. It just needs to sit quietly and see the TPP initiative fall apart."
China is pushing for an alternative economic bloc, the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation in East Asia. With Obama's absence at the recent Asian Summits, Xi was in the limelight. He was the first foreign leader to deliver a speech at the Indonesia Parliament, served as the keynote speaker at the APEC Summit, and was set to visit Malaysia to deepen bilateral relations and defuse tensions over South China Sea disputes.
Translating economic prowess into strategic influence, Xi presented a US$50 billion Asian Infrastructure Bank - rivaling the US-Japan-led Asian Development Bank - to woo Southeast Asian neighbors. Meanwhile, Chinese premier Li Keqiang utilized his country's boosted status to brush aside disputes in the South China Sea, snubbing the Philippines and emphasizing the necessity for prioritizing economic ties over intractable territorial issues.
Despite efforts by the US, Japan, and Australia to bring the South China Sea disputes to the heart of the ASEAN Summit's agenda, the meeting ended with no clear plan for or momentum towards developing a binding code of conduct for a peaceful, rule-based resolution of the South China Sea disputes. Many in Manila had hoped Obama's presence and push would have brought the issue to the Summit's fore.
Instead, Sino-American rivalry for full-spectrum ascendancy in the region has resulted in a zero-sum dynamic. In that game, Obama's no-show in Asia has been widely viewed as a major strategic setback for the US and created a sudden sense of solitude among its strategic Asian allies.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book From Arab Spring to Arab Summer: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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