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Doubting commitment

Srinivas MazumdaruOctober 8, 2013

Barack Obama's cancelation of a key trip to Southeast Asia raises doubts over Washington's commitment to the region. Experts say the US president's absence might boost China's attempt to gain clout in the Asia-Pacific.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks alongside Americans the White House says will benefit from the opening of health insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, October 1, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
Image: Reuters

It was originally planned as part of President Barack Obama's (main picture) "ongoing commitment to increase US political, economic and security engagement with the Asia Pacific," according to the White House.

But the president's week-long four-nation tour of Southeast Asia was ultimately scrapped due to a partial US government shutdown, brought about by the failure of Congress to agree on the budget for the financial year 2013-2014. The White House announced that Secretary of State John Kerry would be traveling to Asia instead.

Mixed reactions

This is the third time in as many years that Obama canceled a trip to Southeast Asia due to domestic problems, raising doubts about Washington's declared commitment to the strategic "pivot" to Asia and its expected role as a balancing power to a rising China.

The itinerary (October 6 -12) included trips to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, where Obama was expected to take part in the regional APEC, ASEAN and EAS summits, engage in a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings and show presence in the fast-growing region.

Traffic signs in front of Malaysia's iconic landmark Patronas Twin Towers point to different streets in downtown Kuala Lumpur on February 8, 2011. AFP PHOTO/ Saeed Khan (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Experts view Southeast Asia as key to Washington's geopolitical calculusImage: Getty Images

While many regional leaders showed understanding for the president's cancelation, others, such as Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, one of Washington's key allies in Southeast Asia, were disappointed. "We prefer a US president who is able to travel to fulfill his international duties to one who is preoccupied with domestic issues," Lee said after arriving in Bali for the 21-member APEC summit. Similar views were expressed by the leaders of Indonesia and Brunei.

ASEAN - 'Vital to US interests'

But despite the mixed reactions, experts believe that the impact of Obama's absence in the summits will be limited and that his administration will sustain its stated policy of long-term "pivot" towards Asia, which aims at bolstering trade and security ties with Asia-Pacific countries, given the strategic and economic importance of the area.

According to US government data, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) represents a market with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of more than $2.2 trillion (1.6 trillion euros) and a population of 620 million people. The region has also become the fourth largest export market for the US with the value of goods traded amounting to $198 billion in 2012, up from $145 billion in 2009.

Furthermore, the US is the top foreign investor in Southeast Asia, with total investment amounting to $165 billion, which is nearly three times larger than its investment in China and 10 times more than that in India, according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

"ASEAN has become the meeting point for both hard and soft power in the Indo-Pacific region; the place where the world's most important economies meet to discuss trade and investment rules and compete," Ernest Bower, Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS, told DW, adding that the region had become vital to US interests.

John Brandon, director of Regional Cooperation Programs at the Asia Foundation points to the importance of the region's maritime routes, saying that more than 40 percent of global seaborne trade and around half of the world's oil and liquefied natural gas pass through them.

This has made the region "integral to Washington's geo-political calculus," Brandon adds. "It's been a long-standing US foreign policy objective to secure and safeguard the sea lanes as a means of ensuring commercial freedom and regional stability."

However, despite growing economic ties and repeated calls for a Free Trade Agreement between the US and the ten-nation bloc, Washington has so far only signed such an agreement with one member state, that being Singapore. "The United States is perceived by ASEAN's leaders as lacking a proactive trade and investment policy for the region, which is a deficiency that limits US engagement with Southeast Asia and prevents US companies from realizing opportunities in the region," a CSIS report stated.

Growing competition from China

Analysts say the cancelation of Obama's Asia tour might boost China's attempt to gain influence in the region."Barack Obama's absence in Asia has allowed Chinese President Xi Jinping to effectively position China as the rising economic and political leader in the Asia-Pacific," Rajiv Biswas, chief Asia economist at the analytics firm IHS, told DW, adding that the economic reality on the ground is that Asia has leaned towards China.

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono welcomes China's President Xi Jinping (L) for the ABAC Dialogue at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali October 7, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
Analysts say the cancelation of Obama's Asia tour might boost China's attempt to gain influence in the regionImage: Reuters

China has become the largest commercial partner for many Asian countries and its direct investments are growing, bringing about increased economic and political clout. According to Biswas, China-ASEAN trade has grown exponentially since 2002, rising from $55 billion in 2002 to $400 billion in 2012.

President Xi recently travelled to Indonesia where he signed an array of deals worth about $30 billion and later attended the APEC summit that Obama missed out on. Xi was also in Malaysia to announce a "comprehensive strategic partnership" that includes enhanced military ties with Kuala Lumpur. "China will firmly uphold regional peace and stability and help cement a foundation for a win-win situation in the Asia-Pacific," Xi told an APEC business forum.

A stronger US presence?

However, Beijing's claims over most of the resource-rich South China Sea have resulted in territorial disputes with several ASEAN member states. A number of maritime incidents have also raised concerns about potential violence, prompting some Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines to seek a stronger US presence in the area. "China's rise has led many states in the region to see Washington as a force to balance the growing influence of Beijing," said Michael Buehler, associate professor in political science at Northern Illinois University, USA.

[21983485] Last day of Exercise Keen Sword 2011 epa02493460 A US Navy handout image made available 13 December 2010 showing the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56), an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, joining a combined formation of twenty-six Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and U.S. ships with 7th Fleet underway in the Pacific Ocean, 10 December 2010, for a photo exercise during the last day of Exercise Keen Sword 2011. Keen Sword is a bilateral exercise designed to strengthen military operations between the U.S. and Japan, which remains a key strategic partner in the Northeast Asia Pacific region. EPA/MCSN Cheng S. Yang/HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY
China's territorial claims have prompted some Asian nations to seek a stronger US presence in the regionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

This view is supported by Biswas, who believes Washington will continue to play an important role in the Asia-Pacific, as many Asian nations continue to rely on the US military as a "bulwark" against varying security challenges they face.