WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel his visits to the economic and political summits in Asia is a setback for the U.S. position in the region. As Woody Allen said, 80 percent of life is showing up, and this is especially true of diplomacy in Asia. But having planned and participated in similar trips for this president and for George W. Bush, we also know that the extent of the damage will depend on what the White House does next.
This is not the first time a president has pulled out of diplomatic engagements in Asia because of domestic politics. In 1995, President Bill Clinton canceled his trip to a regional economic summit in Osaka, Japan, because of a federal government shutdown. He was widely criticized at the time but recovered the following spring with highly successful visits to Japan and Korea that resulted in far-reaching changes to our alliances. Today, nobody remembers that Clinton did not go to Osaka.
In 1998, Clinton pulled out of a summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and sent Vice President Al Gore in his place.
In the midst of Asia’s worst financial crisis and major strains between Washington and regional capitals over the proper remedies, Gore gave an ill-advised “reformasi” speech, criticizing the host country and amplifying the impression that Washington did not understand the region. Everyone in Asia remembers that summit, and U.S. diplomats are still repairing the diplomatic and strategic damage.
This time, the stakes are higher. Asia-Pacific economies account for more than half of global gross domestic product, and Asia is the fastest-growing part of the world economy. Governments across the region are worried about China’s increasing assertiveness and are eager for more active U.S. diplomatic, military and economic engagement to maintain a favorable balance of power.
Not surprisingly, polls show that a plurality of Americans consider Asia the most important region for U.S. interests. Obama’s announcement in his first term that the United States would “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Pacific was broadly welcomed, but doubts have grown.
The driver of the strategy, Hillary Clinton, is out of government; sequestration has weakened the Pentagon’s ability to shift to the Pacific; and the president’s recent address to the United Nations appeared to signal that his core focus going forward would be the Middle East.
To recover from this cancellation, Obama needs to do several things:
First, he needs to reschedule a visit to the region, preferably for early next year. He should stop in Japan and Korea and travel to Southeast Asia to meet with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to compensate for lost visibility in Bali and Brunei this time.
Second, the president has to put more energy into securing congressional support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade negotiation at the center of U.S. efforts to bind the United States and Asia economically for the 21st century. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has ably propelled negotiations with the 11 partner countries in the talks, but he is doing so without a clear idea of what Congress will support. TPP will go nowhere unless Congress grants the president trade promotion or “fast-track,” authority.
The last time Congress granted that authority was in 2002. That was at the height of President George W. Bush’s popularity, but passage required a year of presidential engagement with individual members of Congress, and even then the measure barely passed the House.
Today there are more votes for free trade, but the political environment is also more toxic. Yet, if Obama is serious about leading in the future vision of trans-Pacific ties, he has to redouble his commitment to making this happen.
Third, the White House needs to protect defense spending from the game of chicken that is “sequestration.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has made three trips to Asia, but under current political conditions the Pentagon is not allowed to plan for its presence in the region.
Showing up is important, but regional governments also will measure commitment in terms of capability.
The president needs to reinvest in his Asia policy. The administration’s actions over the next few months will determine whether this cancellation is seen as a blip or a longer-term setback to U.S. relations with the world’s most dynamic region.
Matthew P. Goodman, a former member of the National Security Council staff in the Obama administration, is a chair in political economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia at CSIS and a professor at Georgetown University. He served on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush administration.