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US Government Shutdown Complicates Obama Asia Travel

President Barack Obama speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House, Oct. 1, 2013.
President Barack Obama speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House, Oct. 1, 2013.
A trip that President Barack Obama is scheduled to take to Asia has been cut short by the continuing stalemate between the White House and Republicans over the U.S. government shutdown.  

Shutdown politics continue to play out on Capitol Hill, and Obama called congressional leaders to the White House late Wednesday to discuss ways of finding a quick exit from the impasse.

The president was forced to cancel stops in Malaysia and the Philippines, phoning Prime Minister Najib Razak and President Benigno Aquino early Wednesday to express regrets.

The White House has not ruled out the possibility Obama may have to cancel the remaining legs of his trip, his attendance at the APEC summit in Bali, Indonesia and the East Asia Summit and Southeast Asian meetings in Brunei.

Obama is due to depart for Asia late Saturday Washington time.

Saying things will be evaluated on a day-by-day basis, press secretary Jay Carney said a decision by House Republicans to allow a "clean" vote on reopening the government could resolve the situation.

"It is an important responsibility of a president to travel and conduct foreign policy, to conduct discussions about economic growth and investment in the United States, in our economy, that creates jobs," he said. "The two summits that are taking place in Indonesia and Brunei offer opportunities, both economic opportunities and security opportunities, to the United States and that is why a trip like this for any president is useful and important to the American economy and the American people."

Secretary of State John Kerry, already traveling in Asia, will lead a U.S. delegation to Malaysia and the Philippines.  

Malaysia is a key economic, security and counterterrorism partner important to Obama's strategy of re-balancing U.S. economic and security priorities to Asia.  His visit there would have been the first by a sitting U.S. president since 1966.

His visit to the Philippines would have underscored historically close security and people-to-people ties with one of America's five Asian treaty allies, especially amid concerns about Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Ernie Bower, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says there are significant ramifications of even a shortened Asia trip that will prompt new concerns among U.S. allies and partners about Washington's ability to sustain commitment to the region.

"[They] would have immediately questions not about whether President Obama is committed to the region, but whether the U.S. system will allow a sustained political focus and political capital to be spent on what the administration itself described as a pivot to Asia," said Bower.

Obama missed last year's APEC summit in Vladivostok because of the U.S. presidential election campaign.  Former president Bill Clinton missed two APEC summits in the 1990s.

Michael Green, a National Security Council official under former president George W. Bush, says a narrative has been building that the U.S. economic and security pivot and re-balancing to the region has lost momentum.

But he says this is something the Obama administration can recover from.

"It's ugly and it hurts us and it sticks out the most because we lead, and because our president can't go, but this stuff is happening everywhere," he said. "It is bad but it can be managed if the president and his team are really serious about the so-called pivot and engaging Asia and really call in some chits and make some effort to compensate for this."

In his phone calls to the Malaysian and Philippine leaders, Obama said he looks forward to being able to visit those countries at some point during his second term.

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