Oct 04, 2013

    China turns on charm as US shuts down

    BY FORCING President Barack Obama to cancel a visit next week to Malaysia and the Philippines, the impasse with House Republicans is spoiling Mr Obama's show of support for two South-east Asian countries that have long laboured under the shadow of China.

    And it is undermining his broader effort to put Asia at the heart of US foreign policy. The President's Asian pivot keeps getting pulled back by two forces that have haunted his presidency: strife in the Middle East and strife with Capitol Hill.

    For now, the White House is clinging to the two remaining stops on Mr Obama's tour: a Pacific Rim economic-summit meeting in Indonesia, at which he hopes to meet President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and the East Asia Summit, in Brunei, where he is scheduled to meet the new prime minister of China, Mr Li Keqiang.

    It would be the third time he has been forced to sacrifice an Asia trip because of domestic issues - he postponed a visit in March 2010 because of the battle over a health-care overhaul, and delayed it again four months later because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

    "Diplomatically, it's very harmful," said Dr Kenneth Lieberthal, a top China adviser during the Clinton administration. "I'm sure there are some in China who say that, insofar as the US pivot has China as its bull's-eye, this prevents them from hitting that bull's-eye."

    Dr Jeffrey Bader, who was Mr Obama's senior adviser on China until 2011, said the White House's attempt to salvage the two meetings, even amid the chaos of the shutdown, was an important sign that it remained committed to the region.

    But he added: "The mayhem that compelled the decision sends an unfortunate signal to those countries that the US is far away, and that the US political system is dysfunctional."

    While Mr Obama's plans are in flux, President Xi Jinping of China has embarked on a tour of Southeast Asia that will take him to Indonesia and Malaysia. China, with its expansionist impulses, is a clear beneficiary of a distracted US.

    An ungovernable America is not something that the Chinese want either, given the economic interdependence of the two countries.

    But in the diplomatic struggle for influence in the region, a dysfunctional Washington plays to the short-term advantage of Beijing, especially with China having weathered its own domestic political upheavals.