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Editorial: Canceled Obama tour of Asia is another casualty of shutdown

Published: Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 - 1:33 pm

The president of one of the world’s most powerful nations is on a triumphant tour of Asia, expanding trade ties and building influence. Unfortunately for America, that leader is Xi Jinping of China.

Our president, Barack Obama, had to cancel his planned weeklong trip to those very same countries because he’s stuck in Washington trying to end the government shutdown.

This travesty is another price of House Republicans holding the government hostage in their obsession to repeal health care reform. “How did the world’s lone superpower come to such a sorry pass?” the Philippine Daily Inquirer asked in an editorial.

The immediate damage to U.S. standing in the Asia-Pacific region is already becoming evident. There will be a longer-term reckoning, including for U.S. exports and jobs. California has the most at stake of any state, with nearly $65billion in goods exported last year to Asia – 40percent of the state’s total.

Two years ago, the president declared that the United States would pivot toward Asia and play a “larger and long-term role in shaping this region,” in part to counter a rising China’s ambitions. He backed up his words by announcing the deployment of Marines to Australia by 2016, reinforcing U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan. Just this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel finalized an agreement allowing U.S. drones to deploy in Japan starting next year.

The now-canceled tour was supposed to demonstrate to Asian leaders that the United States is as interested in economic collaboration as in military strength. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, set to begin Monday on the Indonesian island of Bali, the president planned to make a major push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a crucial free trade pact. That 12-nation group notably does not include China, which has already overtaken the United States as the top trading partner with many Asian countries.

Obama also called off plans to attend the East Asia Summit in Brunei and to visit Malaysia and Indonesia, his boyhood home. While Secretary of State John Kerry will be standing in for Obama, it’s not nearly the same as having the president there.

Xi, on the other hand, will be forcefully representing China at the APEC summit. Malaysia rolled out the red carpet for China’s president Friday. Earlier this week, Xi was accorded the honor of being the first foreigner to address the parliament in Indonesia.

Seeing all this play out, top officials in Asia are expressing more doubts about U.S. resolve and more concerns that China will be left unchecked. That is giving China a new edge in the tug-of-war for influence in the region, The New York Times reported Friday.

“It projects a poor image of America as a country that is politically dysfunctional and on the verge of another economic crisis,” Ian Storey, senior fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told Reuters. “Meanwhile, cash-rich and self-confident China will have the floor to itself.”

This is only the latest setback to Obama’s aspirations in Asia. Events – the Arab spring and Syria in particular – have demanded attention. Diplomatic feathers have been ruffled by embarrassing revelations about surveillance of foreign officials. Brazil’s president canceled a state visit this month to Washington following reports that the National Security Agency had tapped her personal communications and spied on the national oil company.

This trip could have gone a long way in helping Obama gain some traction in Asia. That he isn’t representing our country is another indictment of those in Congress putting their selfish political interests ahead of the national interest.

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