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October 04, 2013

Q&A: Impact of Obama's Decision to Skip Asia Summit

by Dan Robinson

The White House has announced that U.S. President Barack Obama is canceling his plans to travel to Asia for diplomatic visits and an APEC summit because of the government shutdown. VOA's Marissa Melton spoke to White House correspondent Dan Robinson about what that means for the United States' relationship with its Asian allies.
 
Q: First of all, what does this cancellation mean in a practical sense, and then in a symbolic sense?
 
A: Well, this is a big deal for a U.S. president, especially one who has emphasized the importance of the Asia/Pacific region, not only at APEC but at other forums like ASEAN, the East Asia summit under the rubric of ASEAN. A big deal for a U.S. president to miss two APEC summits two years in a row.  As you know, President Obama was not able to go to the APEC summit in Vladivostok last year because of the U.S. presidential election campaign. This is bound to raise further questions in Asia among those who are questioning U.S. commitment not only to the strategic pivot but to the whole regional focus or rebalancing of U.S. economic interests in the region.
 
Q: We haven’t even had a president visit Malaysia in a couple of decades, isn't that right?
 
A: That’s right. Earlier, before the announcement that the rest of the trip would be canceled, the White House announced that President Obama would not be going to Malaysia. That would have been the first visit by a U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson way back in 1966. Also cancelled was the stop in the Philippines. President Obama has said he looks forward to making those visits at some point during his second term, but clearly this is going to put a lot of pressure, there’s no doubt that Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Hagel, who have been traveling in the region, can carry the weight for the United States, but again this is very important for the U.S. president to attend not only the APEC summit but also the east Asia summit and meetings with ASEAN.
 
Q: Is this cancellation about the cost of the trip, or about putting pressure on Republicans here at home?
 
A: Well, absolutely, and you saw this in the White House statement, blaming “the Republican shutdown,” what the White House calls the Republican shutdown of the U.S. government. The White House has made the point that East Asia, the Asia-Pacific region, is so important for U.S. jobs, for the U.S. economy, and here you have this dilemma that exists in Washington where the government remains shut down and President Obama has been in such a quandary with Republicans on Capitol Hill. The analysts that I’ve spoken to over the last few weeks in reporting this story leading up to this cancellation say there have been serious questions beginning at least a year ago about the U.S. budget sequestration and the fact that the United States couldn't get a budget done and concerns about the U.S. maintaining security relationships. Now, the U.S. military strategic pivot is moving forward, analysts say, but again there are these nagging questions about whether the full U.S. government has been engaged or can be engaged in this Asia rebalance.
 
Q: How likely is it that this cancellation will have an effect on the standoff between the Republicans, the Democrats and the White House?
 
A:   Personally, from my observations, I don’t think this is going to have much of an effect. One of the things some of these analysts noted was that the members of Congress who used to be very, very engaged and concerned about our relationships with the Asia Pacific -- Senator Jim Webb, for example, Joe Lieberman - many of the lawmakers are no longer in Congress. So the impact of the president having to miss such a trip is probably going to be reduced, although there'll clearly be some concern. The real question is, how Obama will be able to recover from this and, in the next year or so, make it clear to Asian allies and partners that the United States is definitely committed, at least for the second term that Obama has in the White House.
 
Q: Is a rescheduled visit enough to make it up to the Asian countries he’s having to cancel on right now, or will he need to go an extra mile to reestablish the relationship with them?
 
A: He will have to go the extra distance. For some who have suggested for example that he make a specific, lead a trip to the Asia Pacific, to lead a group of business CEO’s and go with them to the region, to kind of reinforce the United States’ determination to remain engaged.