Obama’s Canceled Trip to Asia: How Much Did It Matter?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Last week as the U.S. Federal Government shut down, President Obama canceled his planned trip to Indonesia and Brunei, where he was to have attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bali. Some foreign policy analysts have argued the canceled trip will inflict serious damage to the United States’ position in Asia. Council on Foreign Relations President, Richard Haass, writing yesterday on Politico, said Obama’s absence “makes a mockery” of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia and would give China the upper hand in the region. We asked ChinaFile contributors for their thoughts. —The Editors

Winston Lord:

I am as frustrated as any. The same Asian summit trip cancellation because of an economic fight in the U.S. Congress happened when I was Assistant Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton. We quickly repaired the damage.

It is a setback, but reparable with early revisits and other steps.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry’s “two-plus-two” meeting in Tokyo was very productive and some solace. Nations of the region will base their policies on security and economic concerns, on all the steps we have taken the past four years, and on our actions over time, not on pique. Some reports from the region already suggest this, not apocalyptic conclusions.


Americans, particularly those of us on the West Coast, like to talk about the Asia-Pacific and emphasize that the U.S. is a Pacific country.  But the reality is that it’s a very long way—and a grueling journey even with a nonstop flight—from Washington D.C. to Beijing.  Asian leaders regularly visit one another’s capitals for one day of meetings. The tyranny of distance makes it much harder to get American senior officials out to Asia.  The distance also makes Asian countries, especially our allies, worry that when push comes to shove, the U.S. might abandon them because of preoccupations in other regions or at home.  How to make our commitments in the region credible has been a constant challenge to U.S. policymakers over many administrations.

The Obama administration came into office determined to increase American involvement in Asia in all dimensions—economically, diplomatically, and militarily—in order to avoid marginalizing ourselves from the most dynamic  region of the world and to reassure our friends and allies that they could count on us.  The diplomatic effort involved participating in regional multilateral institutions as well as nurturing bilateral ties.  It tried to span the distance by appointing the first U.S. ambassador to ASEAN who was resident in Jakarta.  The Asia initiative—the so-called pivot—set the bar very high in terms of frequency of visits by senior officials.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her first overseas trip to Asia and returned there very frequently over her tenure.  The President and other senior officials also knocked themselves out traveling to Asia.  The administration made a point of promising that it would always show up for important Asian regional meetings.  It raised unrealistic expectations about how often Asians would see our senior officials. Now that the President has had to cancel his participation in the APEC leaders meeting and the East Asian Summit to remain at the helm in D.C. because of the government shutdown and looming possibility of a default, it is not surprising that commentators are quick to condemn him for failing to live up to his promises.  

It’s also unsurprising the commentators frame President Obama’s absence as a big win for China.  Viewing international relations as a contest in which there is one winner and one loser is a classic misperception shared by many Americans and Chinese alike. 

The Republicans in Congress undoubtedly have damaged America’s standing in Asia and the world by taking the national and global economy to the brink of disaster.  This irresponsible governance, not President Obama’s decision to cancel his trip to Asia, is what is  harming our interests in the region; such failures of  governance would have struck a major blow regardless of whether or not the President had attended the regional meetings.

It will be hard to sell anyone in Asia on any spin other than that this is a sign of deep structural weakness in the American system.  It’s not about the cancellation of a particular trip.  It’s about the circumstances that led to this and other failures to act.  In Asian eyes, we have a leader who can’t control his own government—who won’t use military force without Congressional approval and who allows a rival party to close down his government. 

Any system might produce a weak leader from time to time, but many in Asia think that the U.S. system is especially vulnerable because its way of chosing leaders has nothing to do with proven ability to wield power or the establishment of broad networks.  Even when the leader has a strong personality—as George W. Bush was perceived to have—the American system looks structurally weak.  Various powers are strewn all over the place (by design -- see The Federalist Papers) and nobody can gather them all in one set of hands.  The government fails to control public opinion, so the masses become polarized around irreconcilable views, empowering those who seek to weaken the regime. 

We often tell ourselves that democracy can look messy at times.  It sure does now.  Can the system pull itself together and show its advantages?  Even if and when it does, I don’t think Asians will stop doubting American sticking power in Asia.  They have been asking when the U.S. would leave ever since the U.S. arrived in a major way at the end of World War II, and understandably so since we are so far away.  I do not think the questioning will ever stop—unless and until the doubts are answered in the positive.

While no permanent damage will ensue, it is important that the President attend APEC and the East Asian Summit. With economic and security issues the focus of all these meetings, the U.S. needs its President to attend. The APEC meetings will focus “on revitalizing trade to keep the global economy on a path to recovery, create jobs and move the region towards more balanced and sustainable long-term growth.” This is critical not only to the region, but to the U.S. in particular. Years on from the financial crisis, the U.S. economy is still working to find its way toward more stable ground, and Asia is a critical region for growth. Economic stability impacts regional security. At a time when security issues are also omnipresent in the region, with issues in the South China Sea front and center (and with two of the claimants, Philippines and Malaysia, also being skipped by President Obama on this trip), continuing the dialogue and reinforcing a U.S. role in the region is as important today as it was in previous decades.

While Secretary Kerry will take his place, there is no substitute for having the President involved directly in these conversations and the future of the Asia-Pacific region. While in the end, domestic politics trumps all, it is to the detriment of the United States not only from the perception it creates, but from the reality of his absence.