Instead of cancelling only a portion of his trip to East Asia for this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit as he first intended, President Obama has determined that he is unable to attend at all. This might easily be a serious blunder.
The Obama administration maintains that the federal government shutdown has made the president's visit to the APEC meeting impossible. And, in fact, President Clinton skipped an Asia summit when the 1995 shutdown happened. Still, the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry will speak for America to the leaders of Asian and Pacific nations instead of our own elected leader creates the perception that our leader cannot make time for Asia. It suggests that America's focus is on domestic matters to the exclusion of foreign and trade policy. It makes America look myopic and unconcerned with paying attention to the rising powers of the world. It suggests that a temporary (and arbitrarily created) debt-default-shutdown crisis can throw the American government off of its game.
But beyond the short-term embarrassment of a president who says he can't afford to make the trip, there are larger implications which raise questions about the president's goals for the remainder of his time in office. One of his larger projects, the "pivot" to Asia, one of a number of pivots in his years as president meant to put the United States on track to adapt to the realities of the 21st century, entails multiple endeavors. But a central concern of America's growing focus on the Pacific region and Asian relations is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This, along with America's other strategic plans in Asia, is now put at risk because the president is not personally persuading other leaders.
This particular trade deal is something the president has been pushing for since he came into office, something that would be listed in the history books as a signature achievement for the Obama administration, a prime example of what America stands to lose if relations with Asian nations go downhill. It's a deal that requires the full attention and focus of the U.S. government as it negotiates with the prospective member nations on both sides of the Pacific. Clearly, domestic politics in America is trumping foreign policy, which will ultimately do harm to America's economy. Some think the plan is bad already.
Just last week, Chinese President Xi, who was the keynote speaker at this week's APEC meeting, opened a $50 billion infrastructure bank in Indonesia, where ethnic Chinese business enterprises are quickly furthering economic ties to China. While America dithers, China is investing heavily with hard currency, which unsurprisingly often wins in influencing the behavior of developing nations.
This is but one instance in which China's growth and wish to expand its sphere of influence in the East Asian region has come at the likely expense of American interests. The president's decision to miss the APEC meeting has been met largely with disappointment, as many say this is handing China a golden opportunity.
By no means does this signal that the pivot to Asia will fail or that American interests are going to be ignored in the Pacific, but it does illustrate how relationships with allies and trade partners there will wither if America does not proactively counter the perception that America is not concerned.
If the president doesn't take steps now to correct the idea that focusing on Asia is not a serious national pursuit, then the perception that the United States doesn't devote enough attention to Asian affairs to may take hold and negatively affect future events.