Accessibility links

China Shores Up Regional Deals as Obama Cancels Asia Trip

  • Kate Lamb

China's President Xi Jinping (L) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak shake hands after their joint news conference at Najib's office in Putrajaya, near Kuala Lumpur Oct. 4, 2013.

China's President Xi Jinping (L) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak shake hands after their joint news conference at Najib's office in Putrajaya, near Kuala Lumpur Oct. 4, 2013.

With the continuing government shutdown at home, President Barack Obama has canceled his trip to two key Asian meetings, an economic summit in Bali and an East Asia security conference in Brunei, as well as stops in Malaysia and the Philippines. Analysts say the cancellation risks the integrity of the president’s so-called Asia pivot.

Obama’s planned four-nation tour was intended to strengthen America’s economic and military commitment to Southeast Asia.

But Aleksius Jemadu, a professor of international relations at Pelita Harapan University in Jakarta, said the cancellation raises questions about the president’s commitment to the region.

“I think Obama's administration has to convince again partners in Asia that the United States is really serious about the plan to focus on Asia," Jemadu said, "taking into account the economic emergence of countries China, India and emerging markets like Indonesia in the Asia Pacific.”

Over the next five years around 70 percent of global growth will come from emerging markets, with China and India accounting for more than 40 percent of that expansion.

The Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” was announced in 2011 as diplomatic and military outreach to a growing region considered vital to America’s future.

But with civil war in Syria, a military coup in Egypt and now Congressional deadlock at home, analysts say the administration’s attention has pivoted away.

Speaking from the Philippines, former U.S. under secretary of defense Walter Slocombe defended the U.S. commitment to the region despite President’s Obama’s decision to stay at home.

“The cancellation is because the president has to be in Washington to deal with a major internal U.S. political problem and cannot be outside for the long time that it would be involved," he noted, "it has nothing to do with Asia policy it has to do with the fact that we are in the middle of a political confrontation in Washington and the president has to be there to deal with it.”

But while the U.S. president has been consumed by the budget standoff, China’s president has been busy shoring up regional deals.

In a visit to Jakarta this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed 23 business agreements valued at $33 billion. In Malaysia on Friday, the Chinese leader agreed to boost bilateral trade to $160 billion by 2017.

The Chinese President is also lobbying for a closer relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, a regional grouping with which it already has a free trade agreement.

China is one of ASEAN’s most significant economic partners, but its aggressive claims in the South China Sea have raised territorial tensions.

Analysts say Obama’s absence at APEC, will allow China ample room to court regional heads of state.

Wang Junsheng, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said although APEC is not important for China in terms of security issues, it provides an important platform for multi-lateral diplomacy efforts.

With 21 members, APEC represents the most vital economic bloc in the world and according to Junsheng, China will use this meeting to develop ties with member countries such as Russia and South Korea.

The APEC CEO summit will be held in Bali from October 5-7 and will host heads of state from across the region, including China, Japan, Korea, Russia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The forum comes as the U.S. is working to secure the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a giant free trade pact among 12 countries. It does not include China.