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US diplomacy hobbled by government shutdown

US-EU free trade talks and President Obama's trip to Asia have become the latest casualties of the government shutdown in Washington. The White House has warned that sanctions against Iran could also be undermined.

The White House announced on Friday that US President Barack Obama had cancelled his trip to Asia, blaming the partisan congressional stalemate over funding the federal government.

President Obama was scheduled to depart this weekend for two regional summits: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Bali, Indonesia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Brunei.

"The cancelation of this trip is another consequence of the House Republicans forcing a shutdown of the government," said a White House press release.

"This completely avoidable shutdown is setting back our ability to create jobs through promotion of US exports and advance US leadership and interests in the largest emerging region in the world."

But leading Republicans have blamed the government shutdown on the president, saying that he has refused to sit down and negotiate.

"I was at the White House the other night and listened to the president some 20 times explain to me why he wasn't going to negotiate," Speaker of the House John Boehner told reporters in Washington on Friday.

Foreign policy fallout

Regional experts said the cancelled trip could set back the Obama administration's efforts to shift US foreign policy toward Asia, giving China the opportunity to steal the show at the two summits. US Secretary of State John Kerry will attend in President Obama's place.

"It shows that China has a functional government and America doesn't at the moment," Kerry Brown, a China expert at the University of Sydney, told the Associated Press. "It's just another sign that America is kind of losing its luster, losing its status."

Meanwhile, the White House warned on Friday that the shutdown would undermine sanctions against Iran. Washington has imposed a host of punitive measures against the Islamic Republic over its disputed nuclear program.

According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control has been forced to cut its staff from 175 to 11. The office targets companies and individuals that violate the US sanctions regime against Tehran.

"The office is unable to sustain its core functions," Carney said.

The second round of discussions between the US and EU over a transatlantic free trade agreement have also been cancelled for the time being. Cuts in State Department travel forced US Trade Representative Michael Froman to postpone the talks, which were scheduled to begin on this coming Monday.

Partisan finger pointing

The federal government shut down on Monday, when Democrats and Republicans failed to agree on a short-term spending bill. The two parties have blamed each other for the political stalemate.

"This isn't some damn game," House Speaker Boehner said. "The American people don't want their government shut down and neither do I. All we're asking for is to sit down and have a discussion."

House Republicans had amended the spending bill to defund key provisions of the president's health care reform law. But the Democrat-controlled Senate killed the House legislation and passed a so-called "clean" bill stripped of the amendment targeting the Affordable Care Act. The Senate draft has now stalled in the House.

"I am happy to have negotiations with the Republicans and Speaker Boehner on a whole range of issues, but we can't do it with a gun held to the head of the American people," President Obama said. "So reopen the government, make sure we're paying our bills."

slk/av (AP, AFP, dpa)