Asia

China reaps rewards of US govt shutdown

The US Capitol during day 3 of the shutdown in Washington yesterday. There is little sign of a compromise that would reopen the government by the weekend. Photo: Reuters
Mr Obama speaking about the shutdown during a visit to Maryland yesterday. It would be the third time he has been forced to sacrifice an Asian trip due to domestic issues. Photo: AP
Impasse undermines Obama’s show of support for Indonesia, Malaysia as Xi visits South-east Asia
Published: 4:03 AM, October 4, 2013
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WASHINGTON — Debate over the federal government shutdown has tended to focus on those it hurts: Veterans, tourists barred from the Lincoln Memorial and Yellowstone National Park, and giant panda enthusiasts deprived of their publicly funded panda cam.

But the shutdown has already produced at least one winner: China.

By forcing US President Barack Obama to cancel a visit next week to Malaysia and the Philippines, the impasse with House Republicans is spoiling his 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 American foreign policy.

Mr Obama’s planned itinerary for next week — a mix of summit meetings and goodwill visits — was carefully moulded to reinforce the message to China that the United States is once again a central player in the region.

But 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 with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and the East Asia Summit, in the sultanate of Brunei, where he is scheduled to meet the new Prime Minister of China, Mr Li Keqiang.

With little sign of a compromise that would reopen the government by this weekend, however, Mr Obama may be forced to scrap those visits, too, sending Secretary of State John Kerry as his understudy. 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 the healthcare overhaul, and delayed it again four months later because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Diplomatically, it’s very harmful,” said Mr Kenneth Lieberthal, a top China adviser during the Clinton administration. “I’m sure there are some in China who say, insofar as the US pivot has China as its bullseye, this prevents them from hitting that bullseye.”

Mr 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.”

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