Is Obama striking out on his Asia pivot?


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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's decision to cut short a trip to Asia next week because of the government shutdown is a setback to the administration's efforts to focus on the economic and strategically important region.

Mr. Obama decided Wednesday to go ahead with his planned trip to Indonesia and Brunei for Asian summits, but he will cancel planned stops in Malaysia and the Philippines to return home.

The White House attributed the cancellation to logistics involved in staffing the last two stops of the trip and blamed House Republicans for the move. "This completely avoidable shutdown is setting back our ability to promote U.S. exports and advance U.S. leadership in the largest emerging region in the world," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

Press secretary Jay Carney said the rest of the trip was on, at least for now. "It's an important responsibility of a president to travel and conduct foreign policy, to conduct discussions about economic growth and investment in the United States," Mr. Carney said, adding that the two summits "offer both economic opportunities and security opportunities."

The administration's push to turn to Asia -- dubbed the Asia pivot -- already had been questioned in the region, amid worries that budget woes, the sequester and continuing Middle East turmoil will sap the U.S. commitment to the countries that share the region with an increasingly assertive China.

"The narrative is building pretty strongly that the pivot has lost its mojo because there is no champion," as there was with then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Michael Green, a former National Security Council director for Asian affairs under George W. Bush and senior vice president for the Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He noted that Mr. Obama "barely mentioned Asia in passing" at the United Nations last week, and that the Syria situation has some in the Asian region questioning "whether the U.S. has the willpower to honor its security commitments."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has made three trips to the region, and though a cancellation would be seen as "undeniably negative," U.S. history shows that missteps can be rectified, Mr. Green said. He noted that President Bill Clinton skipped the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting in 1995 as Republicans threatened a government shutdown, but he was able to mend fences during a trip to Japan and South Korea in April 1996.

Mr. Obama twice canceled trips to Asia in 2010 because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the health care debate. "These things can be quite consequential and have lasting strategic implications," Mr. Green said of missed meetings, noting that China could look to use the situation to raise doubts about U.S. staying power. "But it is also possible to recover, if the president is seen to come in swinging with some deliverables and rescheduled trips in the months ahead."

The State Department announced that Secretary of State John Kerry would travel to both countries. The White House said Mr. Obama told Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Philippines President Benigno Aquino that he would commit to traveling to the countries "later in his term."

Malaysia's Mr. Najib was sympathetic to Mr. Obama's plight, saying he would do the same if he were in a similar circumstance, the Malaysian Insider reported. "Obama would be severely criticized if he were to go on with his Asian tour instead of remaining in the United States to resolve the crisis," the newspaper quoted Mr. Najib as saying.

Mr. Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, took office four years ago with a pledge to concentrate on Asia, saying it had been neglected by Mr. Bush, even as China's economic and military influence grew.

"The whole objective of the pivot was to try to say that the U.S. views Asia as a really important partner and will continue to devote high-level political attention, but what's been happening is that there are other demands on his time," said Homi Kharas, deputy director of the Brookings Global Economy & Development program and an expert on Southeast Asian economies. "From the perception of Asia, it raises the question, 'Maybe they want to [focus on the region], but can they in practice?' "

Mr. Obama, who is scheduled to leave Washington late Saturday, will start the trip in Bali, Indonesia, to attend the APEC meeting, the region's forum for trade and investment talks. He missed last year's summit, which fell during his presidential nominating convention in Charlotte, N.C. That could provide the first opportunity for him to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin since he agreed to forgo a military strike on Syria and seek a diplomatic fix proposed by the Russian president.

He will also meet in Bali with leaders who are hoping to wrap up a trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the end of the year. The pact is a top trade priority for Mr. Obama, who wants to increase U.S. exports to the Pacific Rim.

Delivering that deal would be a big accomplishment, said Matthew Goodman, a former National Security Council director for international economics under Mr. Obama and the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Its failure, however, would seriously undermine Mr. Obama's effort, he said.

Mr. Obama will then travel to Brunei for the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit and the East Asia Summit, as well as for a meeting with the sultan of Brunei, whom he hosted at the White House in March.

"At the end of the day, Asia is the most dynamic, fastest-growing economic center, and many of the president's economic pledges such as doubling exports rely on and require good relationships with Asia," Brookings' Mr. Kharas said.

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