After canceling scheduled visits to Malaysia and the Philippines earlier this week, President Obama has pulled out of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Indonesia and the East Asia summit in Brunei. The president said the government shutdown made a big overseas trip impossible logistically — and politically it's hardly a good time to be seen frolicking in Bali, where even the journalists at the summit get free massages.
In Asia, though, they're calling it a missed opportunity. This is the second year in a row that Obama has skipped APEC (last year he was campaigning for re-election). He was supposed to use this trip to promote his "pivot to Asia" — which encompasses both the deployment of military assets in the Pacific and a push for free trade.
The centerpiece of this strategy is the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership, a huge, 12-nation zone that would encompass one-third of the world's international trade. In addition to the U.S., the proposed pact includes Mexico, Chile, and Canada on one side of the ocean; on the other, Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Conspicuously missing from agreement: China. The TPP is an American attempt to do an end run around China, but it's not yet a done deal.
In the South China Morning Post, Trefor Moss says Obama's decision to stay home "like a captain duty-bound to stand on the burning deck" has hurt the TPP's chances. The no-show, he continues,
projects an image of a shrunken America — of a paralyzed president, and of a nation exhausted by its own internal battles. After all, how can a president who can't keep his own government running — who can't even get on a plane — lead the Asia-Pacific region into a new era of political and economic connectivity? How can a president with no money — because Congress won't give him any — plausibly claim that the U.S. will bolster its presence in Asia, or spearhead a new regional trade initiative? [South China Morning Post]
Meanwhile, the Chinese President Xi Jinping is hopping all over the region, pushing his own regional trade bloc proposal called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. That one includes China and 15 other nations, but not the U.S.
Xi also had a state visit this week in Indonesia, where he became the first foreign leader to address the country's parliament. He reportedly wowed his audience with a promise to set up an Asian development bank that would build a new "maritime Silk Road" with streamlined shipping facilities in China and elsewhere in Asia.
Now Xi is spending three days in Malaysia, pouring on the charm in a country that has already been wavering on the TPP. Malaysia's biggest trading partner is China, and China wants Malaysia in its pact only. Speaking this week in Kuala Lumpur, prominent Malaysian economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram argued that there's no point in Malaysia antagonizing China by entering the TPP. "The U.S. dollar has devalued the last few years so the huge U.S. deficit with China has closed," he said. "So now it's yesterday's problem. Why should we get stuck in such a policy and an agreement which was hatched up earlier?"
Malaysia's government may agree. Already, Xi's visit has produced an agreement to nearly triple the two countries' trade volume by 2017.