Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why ASEAN Is Essential to US Interests

NOTE: President Obama cancelled his entire Asia trip, so it looks like all of the negative effects that I predicted below may come to pass. An updated version of this post is available here.

The big news this week is the stalemate in the U.S. government, with President Obama and Congress unable to agree on funding for continuing operations.  This has resulted in the suspension of “non-essential” government operations, with most national government employees on enforced, unpaid leave.  This stalemate also threatens President Obama’s Asia trip to the APEC summit in Bali and the ASEAN summit in Brunei, as stops in Malaysia and the Philippines have already been cancelled.  (Note: I am quoted in a article on the same subject here).

President Obama needs to be in Bali and Brunei to show that the TPP, APEC and ASEAN are "essential" to America's rebalancing in the region and unaffected by the stalemate in Washington.  Otherwise, U.S. credibility in the region will suffer.

President Obama has delayed or cancelled trips to APEC and ASEAN before, such as for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or the Fort Hood shootings. On those occasions,  Asian countries were more understanding of the need to deal with natural disasters and national tragedies.

Here, the President's absence from Bali would be an ominous sign that the U.S. is not prepared to get the TPP, let alone a WTO agreement, through Congress.  Asian leaders will feel that if the President and Congress cannot agree on the basic operations of the U.S. government, how can they pass the Trade Promotion Authority needed to approve and implement the TPP and other trade agreements? Without such assurances, the other TPP parties will not push for an earlier completion of the talks.  Obama's skipping Bali would definitely delay any conclusion of TPP talks to 2014, if not beyond.  

Showing up in Brunei is also important to demonstrate the U.S. political and diplomatic commitment to the region.  Some Asian pundits already question whether last month’s brinkmanship over Syria is a sign that the rebalancing to Asia is firmly set. I disagree, but if the President was willing to order military strikes on Syria to maintain credibility, why would the President not also take steps to maintain credibility in Asia? 

Going to Brunei and Bali will show that U.S. foreign policy can continue despite domestic difficulties.  President Obama can display his statesmanship while the funding negotiations go on. Plus, it is somewhat doubtful that the impasse will be addressed so soon. The last time this happened, it took about two weeks to resolve.   In this case, if after two weeks the Republicans cannot build their case against Obama’s medical insurance plan (the cause of their refusal to fund the government) or the Democrats show why a continued shutdown does not risk putting the economy at risk, then the dispute will resolve itself, as it did in 1995.  Either way, the President’s presence in Washington will not, in and of itself, result in a quick resolution of the dispute.

The President can probably make it up to Malaysia and the Philippines with a later visit.  Conceivably he could substitute his appearance at the ASEAN summit with a special US-ASEAN summit later, and the TPP talks are not likely to be completed this year in any event.

Yet cancelling the President’s Asia trip would be a sign of weakness on the domestic and foreign stage.  Contrast all of the U.S. drama with Chinese President Xi Jingping’s visit to Indonesia this week.  Granted, China doesn’t have the same domestic problems as the U.S. and has its own disputes with ASEAN.  But President Obama has to leave on Air Force One this week to show that the U.S. is a reliable partner, that ASEAN is “essential” to U.S. interests.