6:21pm

Tue October 8, 2013
Parallels

Asian Allies' Anxieties Rise Amid Washington Paralysis

Originally published on Tue October 8, 2013 7:24 pm

The partial shutdown of the U.S. government has all sorts of costs — not only in the United States, but also overseas. President Obama had to cancel a trip this week to visit four nations in Asia so he could stay in Washington to deal with the political crisis. That has disappointed — even worried — some of America's friends in the region, who are counting on the United States to stand up to an increasingly assertive China.

The disappointment over the president's no-show in Asia was palpable.

"Obama's inability to come has just deepened anxieties of allies in the region," says Richard Heydarian, a foreign policy adviser to the Philippine Congress.

Simon Tay, who chairs the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, a think tank, puts it this way: "It's the worst thing that could happen for perhaps the worst reasons."

After two wars and a financial crisis at home, Obama pledged to rebalance — or pivot — American foreign policy toward Asia, which is becoming the world's economic center of gravity. But given the country's fiscal problems, there have been concerns about America's staying power.

Asian leaders hoped Obama would allay those worries this week in speeches in the region. Instead, his cancellation, while understandable, only raised more questions. Huang Jing, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, says not coming to Asia just doesn't look good.

"People are going to say: 'Oh, you can't even put your own house in order, how can you take care of Asia-Pacific?' " says Huang.

Worse, the shutdown has become a source of humor. Heydarian says it was a punch line at a current affairs forum in Manila on Monday.

"They were all making jokes and quips about America," he says. "They were saying, 'Do Americans even have enough money to sustain their own state operations? Can they be a functional state to begin with, never mind them being a superpower?' "

For the Philippines — a close U.S. ally — declining American power is nothing to laugh about. The country is locked in a David-and-Goliath dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea. China has been trying to isolate the Philippines diplomatically, and Manila is hoping the U.S. will back it up.

With Obama in Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping has had the stage in Asia to himself. He spoke at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation — or APEC — meeting in Indonesia, which Obama had planned to attend.

Tay notes that Xi even became the first foreign leader to address Indonesia's parliament.

"Which is ironic, because in the last 10 years, Indonesia has become a compelling story for democracy," Tay says. "Rather than having the U.S. leader addressing that joint house, it has been the Chinese."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has come to Asia in Obama's place and will head to the Philippines later this week. At a speech at APEC Monday, he opened with a joke.

"In 2004, I worked very hard to replace a president," he said. "This is not what I had in mind."

Kerry then insisted the political stalemate at home had no bearing on America's commitments in the region.

"No one should mistake what is happening in Washington as anything more than a moment of politics," he said.

Ernie Bower, who chairs Southeast Asia studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says despite concerns in the region, the United States can and should become more engaged in Asia.

"For one, the geopolitical math is compelling," says Bower. "Asia is where the majority of our trade is coming from. It's the largest growth region in the world."

And for all the gloomy talk, the U.S. is still the world's dominant military power. Bower thinks America's engagement in Asia ultimately depends on political will. If Obama can make it back to the region on another trip, it would probably go a long way.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The ongoing government shutdown has costs - lots of them - not just here at home but also overseas. In response to the shutdown, President Obama canceled a trip this week to visit four nations in Asia. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, that's disappointed and worried some of America's friends in the region who are counting on the U.S. to stand up to an increasingly assertive China.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The disappointment over President Obama's no-show in Asia is palpable.

RICHARD HEYDARIAN: Overall, Obama's inability to come has deepened anxieties of allies in the region.

HUANG JING: Psychologically, there will be a far-reaching impact.

SIMON TAY: It's the worst thing that could happen for perhaps the worst reason.

LANGFITT: Those were comments from Richard Heydarian, foreign policy adviser to the Philippine Congress; Huang Jing, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore; and Simon Tay, who chairs the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

After two wars and a financial crisis at home, President Obama pledged to rebalance or pivot American foreign policy towards Asia, which is becoming the world's center of economic gravity. But as Simon Tay says, there's been skepticism over America's staying power.

TAY: For sometime already, people are wondering about whether the pivot, which was declared just two years ago, could really be sustained.

LANGFITT: Leaders here hope Mr. Obama would allay those concerns this week. Instead, his cancelation only raised more questions. Huang Jing of the National University of Singapore says it just didn't look good.

JING: People are going to say, oh, you cannot even put your own house in order. How could you take care of Asia Pacific?

LANGFITT: Worse, the shutdown has become a source of humor. Richard Heydarian says it was a punchline yesterday at a current affairs forum in Manila.

HEYDARIAN: They are all making jokes and quips about America. Oh, they were saying like, do Americans even have enough money to sustain their own state operations? Can they be a functional state to begin with, never mind them being a super power?

LANGFITT: For the Philippines, a close U.S. ally, declining American power is nothing to laugh about. The country is locked in a David-and-Goliath dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea.

HEYDARIAN: For the Filipinos, the viability of America as a state with, you know, enough fiscal resources, it's a very important issue.

LANGFITT: With Mr. Obama in Washington, China's President Xi Jinping had the stage in Asia to himself. He spoke at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, meeting in Indonesia, which President Obama had planned to attend. Simon Tay notes President Xi even became the first foreign leader to address Indonesia's parliament.

TAY: Which is ironic because in the last 10 years, Indonesia has become a compelling story for democracy. And rather than having the U.S. leader be the first person to address that joint house, it has been the Chinese.

LANGFITT: Secretary of State John Kerry has come to Asia in Mr. Obama's place. At a speech yesterday at APEC, he opened with a joke.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: In 2004, obviously, I worked very, very hard to replace a president. This is not what I had in mind.

(LAUGHTER)

LANGFITT: Mr. Kerry then insisted the political stalemate back home had no bearing on America's commitments here.

KERRY: No one should mistake what is happening in Washington as anything more than a moment of politics.

LANGFITT: Ernie Bower focuses on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says despite concerns here, the United States can and should become more engaged in Asia.

ERNIE BOWER: I'm confident for a couple of reasons. One, just the geopolitical math is compelling. Asia is where the majority of our trade is coming. It's the largest growth region in the world.

LANGFITT: And for all the gloomy talk, the U.S. is still the world's dominant military power. Bower thinks America's engagement in Asia ultimately depends on political will. And if President Obama can make it back here on another trip, well, that would probably go a long way. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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