October 4, 2013


[The news comes after Mr. Obama’s U-turn on intervention in Syria amid signs of a new American insularity, and as the revolt in the House of Representatives left Asians puzzling over America’s messy democracy and wondering if the United States would be able — or willing — to stand up to China in a confrontation.]

By Jane Perlez

Picture courtesy: Bali, Indonesia
BEIJING — As President Obama made apologetic calls to Asia to cancel his planned trip, China’s leader, Xi Jinping was taking a star turn in some of the same countries Mr. Obama would have visited.
This week, Mr. Xi became the first foreigner to address the Indonesian Parliament, offering billions of dollars in trade to the country that was Mr. Obama’s childhood home. Mr. Xi then moved on to Malaysia, before preparing to attend two Asian summits that Mr. Obama had to abandon because of the government shutdown.
With the cancellation of the visits, the much-promoted but already anemic American “pivot” to Asia was further undercut, leaving allies in the region increasingly doubtful the United States will be a viable counterbalance to a rising China.
The news comes after Mr. Obama’s U-turn on intervention in Syria amid signs of a new American insularity, and as the revolt in the House of Representatives left Asians puzzling over America’s messy democracy and wondering if the United States would be able — or willing — to stand up to China in a confrontation.
That wariness, Asian officials and analysts say, is giving China a new edge in the tug-of-war between the two countries over influence in Asia, with the gravitational pull of China’s economy increasingly difficult to resist.
“How can the United States be a reliable partner when President Obama can’t get his own house in order?” asked Richard Heydarian, a foreign policy adviser to the Philippine Congress and a lecturer in international affairs at Ateneo de Manila University in Manila. “It makes people wonder: is the United States really in the position to come to our aid in the event of a military conflict.”
And in rare public criticism of the United States by a senior Singaporean official, Bilahari Kausikan, the recently retired permanent secretary of the Foreign Ministry, said in a speech in Hanoi on Thursday that in the face of China’s challenge, Washington – and its ally, Japan – were “not exerting sufficient countervailing economic influence.”
China’s mounting investments in Southeast Asia — including the establishment of a $50 billion Chinese infrastructure bank to rival banks influenced by the United States — are no longer “just a matter of business” but “a core Chinese interest,” Mr. Kausikan warned.
“Where economics goes, strategy inevitably follows,” he said.
That is not to say the United States will lose its standing in the region it has long dominated anytime soon. Many Asian countries remain wary of China’s territorial ambitions and had welcomed the “pivot” as a protection against extensive Chinese claims in the South China and East China seas. The presence of tens of thousands of American troops in Japan and South Korea, and of naval fleets roaming the Pacific, add to that projection of power.
As if to bolster that point, the American secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, visited South Korea and Japan this week, and the secretary of state, John Kerry, was in Japan, for talks to beef up the American alliances with those two countries. In Japan, the United States signed an agreement that allows the deployment of American drones there for the first time and gives implicit backing to Japan’s slow but steady moves to strengthen its once powerful military.
But even in Japan, doubts were expressed about the willingness of the United States to back its longtime ally in the event of a conflict between Japan and China over islands in the East China Sea known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. The conservative government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already increased the military budget, partly from fear that the United States would not come to its aid despite its treaty obligations.
“The analogy is when Obama initially tried to use military strikes against Syria, but then they didn’t happen,” said Ken Jimbo, associate professor of international security at Keio University in Tokyo. “What if North Korea is aggressive towards South Korea, how would the Obama administration react? What about the Senkaku: if China is assertive with its maritime forces would Washington provide any physical commitment?”
In Seoul, Mr. Hagel, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey sat with President Park Geun-hye this week at a dinner to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the American-South Korean alliance this week, as the popular press hammered the United States for a “new isolationism.”
In the mass circulation daily, JoongAng Ilbo, a columnist, Kim Young-hie, wrote, “Washington’s primary concerns have veered away from Asia, the Korean Peninsula and North Korea.” The Obama administration’s policy toward North Korea was “strategic neglect,” Mr. Kim said.
In Indonesia, where China has long been viewed with suspicion, attitudes toward the Chinese have warmed, said Rizal Sukma, executive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I would call Indonesia’s attitude towards China now as ‘a display of growing comfort amid persistent ambiguity,’ ” Mr. Sukma said. “On the one hand, it values economic opportunities offered by China. On the other hand, Indonesia is still anxious about China’s long-term intentions in East Asia.”
He added, “Like many other East Asian countries, Indonesia has been in doubt regarding America’s ability to sustain the pivot strategy, with the huge cuts in the defense budget over the next five years.”
In his speech in Jakarta, Mr. Xi said China expected to reach one trillion dollars of trade with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by 2020.
All countries in Asia, except the Philippines, now count China as their chief trading partner, said Peter Drysdale, an economist who heads the East Asia Forum at the Australian National University in Canberra.
China’s trade with these nations had grown so quickly in the last 10 years, overtaking the United States as many countries prime trading partner, that China would only have to increase its trade fourfold in order to reach that goal, he said.
“United States trade would have to increase a tad more than fivefold to match that – a bit more of a stretch,” Mr. Drysdale said.
By failing to show up at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, which opens on the Indonesian island of Bali on Monday, and by not attending the East Asia Summit in Brunei two days later, Mr. Obama could be ceding Mr. Xi plenty of ground.
One of Mr. Obama’s goals at the Bali summit was to push Asian countries invited by Washington to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact to finalize negotiations by the end of the year. The administration has not invited China to join the 12-member group, and China views it as a tool to contain it.
The pact — a major platform of Mr. Obama’s Asian pivot because it serves as an argument that the new policy is not only military but economic — is running into problems in some countries, particularly Malaysia, where Mr. Obama was supposed to go next week.
With Mr. Obama in a battle with House Republicans over fiscal problems, Asian leaders will now be asking whether the president possesses the political capital to get the trade pact through Congress, Asian officials said.
Without Mr. Obama in Bali, Mr. Xi will be able to push a counter trade grouping favored by China, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which embraces a broader group of Asian countries than the Pacific Partnership. The Regional Partnership does not include the United States.
If showing up is more than half the game, Mr. Xi will be highlighting Mr. Obama’s absence at the summits, some Asians said.
“He is winning hearts and minds in the right places,” said Endy Bayuni, senior editor of the Jakarta Post, a national daily newspaper, of the Chinese leader. And, he said, even if he had turned up in Bali Mr. Obama would have most likely been afforded a “less warm reception.”
Reporting was contributed by Martin Fackler in Tokyo, Choe Sang-Hun in Seoul, Joe Cochrane in Jakarta and Floyd Whaley in the Philippines.