President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel his already truncated trip to Asia next week has elicited shrugs in Washington and politely clenched jaws from Bali to Tokyo. What else could he do, say those focused on the high-stakes U.S. budget stalemate. What else is new, say those hoping that the administration will deliver on its promise of a “pivot” or a “rebalancing” toward Asia.
Much of the criticism of the cancellation comes from those worried about China’s growing economic and strategic heft. The Chinese are playing a long game in the region, it’s said: President Xi Jinping has been crisscrossing Southeast Asia, glad-handing counterparts and talking up business deals. Questioning the U.S. commitment to Asia is a default setting for pundits -- one reinforced by Obama’s previous two cancellations of Asia trips in 2010 -- and the Chinese want their neighbors to know they aren’t going anywhere.
You don’t need to be Sun Tzu to exploit this dynamic. Pure geography means that Chinese officials will always outdo their U.S. counterparts in the number of meetings held, deals signed, hands shaken. Countries in the region will always hedge their bets, rolling out the red carpet for Secretary of State John Kerry one week, then jetting off to Beijing to pose with Xi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
No doubt the U.S. would have benefited if Obama had gone ahead with his trip. Negotiations for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact are nearing the endgame. A little presidential charm or arm-twisting would surely help negotiators overcome the stumbling blocks presented by Japan’s closed agricultural markets, Malaysia’s ethnic preferences and Vietnam’s state-owned enterprises.
At the same time, the agonizing in some quarters over the missed opportunity and U.S. loss of face is exaggerated. China’s heavy-handed behavior is the reason for renewed local interest in a strong U.S. presence. Nations from Myanmar to Vietnam to Japan are bridling at Chinese arrogance, military assertiveness and (as they see it) economic exploitation. That’s why Japan’s government wants to ramp up its military ties to the U.S. That’s why the Philippines is interested in reopening Subic Bay as a naval station for U.S. warships. And that’s why China is attempting a new charm offensive.
Obama’s failure to don a batik shirt for the closing photo shoot of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit changes little. In addition, if the past is any guide, China’s leaders will once again overplay their hand. For many of its neighbors, China’s uncompromising stance on sovereignty over various disputed atolls and islands is just too alienating.
The U.S. would do well to play a long game of its own. More important than all the talk about “rebalancing” is the substance, especially concerning trade and investment. The U.S. now exports goods worth more than $325 billion a year to Pacific Rim nations. Kerry and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker can push for more. Even Congress has done its part by so far blessing sales of cheap shale gas to Asian nations, with or without free-trade agreements. At home, Obama can urge U.S. auto manufacturers and others to stop resisting some of the TPP’s provisions -- demands that will only provoke deal-breaking counterdemands from their Asian competitors.
The U.S. could shine more light on unrest in countries such as Cambodia, where recent elections were tainted by charges of fraud. It can expand its emerging strategic cooperation with nations such as Vietnam, including a possible end to the embargo on the sale of lethal U.S. military equipment.
Asia’s leaders will judge the U.S. commitment partly by the resources -- financial, diplomatic and military -- that the administration has available to it. Cuts at the Pentagon have already caused alarm across the region. A functioning U.S. government not about to default on its debts will send a more impressive message than a presidential visit while Washington flails.
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