China's Xi cashes in on Obama absence from Asia summit

As President Barack 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 Obama would have visited. This week, Xi became the first foreigner to address the Indonesian Parliament, offering billions of dollars in trade to the country that was Obama’s childhood home. Xi then moved on to Malaysia, before preparing to attend two Asian summits that 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 US will be a viable counterbalance to a rising China. The news comes after 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 US  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, where the gravitational pull of China’s economy is 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 US really in the position to come to our aid in the event of a military conflict?”

And in rare public criticism of the US 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,” 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 defence, 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.

In Seoul, Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen.Martin E Dempsey, sat with president Park Geun-hye 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.”

Strategic neglect

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,” 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 Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“I would call Indonesia’s attitude towards China now as 'a display of growing comfort amid persistent ambiguity,'” 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, Xi said China expected to reach 1 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,” Drysdale said.

By failing to show up at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, which opened on the Indonesian island of Bali and by not attending the East Asia Summit in Brunei two days later, Obama could be ceding Xi plenty of ground.

One of 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 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 Obama was supposed to go next week.

With 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 Obama in Bali, Xi will be able to push a counter trade grouping favoured 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, Xi will be highlighting 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, Obama would have most likely been afforded a “less warm reception.”

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