Obama cancels Asia tour over shutdown; raises questions on U.S. pivot

Reuters

By Steve Holland and James Pomfret

WASHINGTON/NUSA DUA, Indonesia, Oct 4 (Reuters) - PresidentBarack Obama called off plans to visit Asia and attend twosummits because of the U.S. government shutdown, raisingquestions about the strategic "pivot" to the region that heannounced just two years ago.

Obama had planned to depart on Saturday for a four-nation,week-long trip. He cancelled visits to Malaysia and thePhilippines earlier this week because of his budget struggle inthe U.S. Congress and said late on Thursday he would not attendthe regional summits in Indonesia and Brunei.

The political standoff over the U.S. budget has shut downnon-essential government services and appeared likely to drag onfor another week or longer. Another crisis looms in two weekswhen lawmakers must decide whether to increase the U.S.government's $16.7 trillion debt borrowing limit.

"The president made this decision based on the difficulty inmoving forward with foreign travel in the face of a shutdown,and his determination to continue pressing his case thatRepublicans should immediately allow a vote to reopen thegovernment," the White House said.

Obama was scheduled to meet Russian President VladimirPutin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime MinisterShinzo Abe, among other leaders, at the summits.

Two of his main aims would have been to discuss the Syriacrisis with Putin and to hold talks on a maritime code ofconduct for disputed territories in the oil- and gas-rich SouthChina Sea.

"We are disappointed," said Indonesian Information MinisterTifatul Sembiring on the island of Bali, host of theAsia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit from Sunday.

"I think the summit will go on, there is a long-term plan.(But) without Obama, you can imagine how disappointed we are. Wecould hardly imagine he wouldn't come."

Obama was also scheduled to attend the East Asia Summit,organised by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in Brunei next week.

Xi, who was on a visit to Malaysia on Friday, did notcomment on Obama's decision. But analysts said the no-show bythe U.S. president would work to China's advantage.

"While his decision is perfectly understandable, it projectsa poor image of America as a country that is politicallydysfunctional and on the verge of another economic crisis," saidIan Storey, senior fellow at Singapore's Institute of SoutheastAsian Studies.

"Meanwhile, cash-rich and self-confident China will have thefloor to itself."

Obama twice postponed visits to Indonesia and Australia in2010, because of a health reform bill and then because of theGulf of Mexico oil spill. He was absent from the APEC meetinglast year in Vladivostok, Russia because of a Democratic Partyconvention.

SEVERE DILEMMA

In Tokyo, Japan's top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga,said Abe would attend the summits as planned.

"This is a domestic problem of the United States," he said."We hope the (Obama) administration and Congress negotiateearnestly to solve the problem as early as possible, so that theproblem won't be affecting various issues."

Storey said the latest domestic crisis was posing a severedilemma for Obama, since it clashed with a cherished foreignpolicy objective. At the APEC and East Asia Summits two yearsago, Obama announced the U.S. strategic pivot, or rebalancing,toward Asia, which was seen as a reaction to the growing cloutof China.

"On the one hand he needs to be in Asia to demonstrateAmerica's commitment to the region and especially to theASEAN-led regional security architecture that has been one ofthe central planks of his administration's Asia policy," saidStorey.

"But with government employees on unpaid leave, Obama cannotafford to leave Washington and be seen hob-nobbing with worldleaders on a tropical island."

The Washington stalemate has idled hundreds of thousands offederal government workers and comes two weeks before Washingtonfaces an even more crucial deadline - raising the U.S. debtlimit so the United States can pay its bills. A bitter debaterages over that issue as well and if left unresolved couldresult in a U.S. debt default.

Denis Blair, the former commander of U.S. forces in thePacific region, said not too much should be read into Obama'sdecision to call off the tour.

"I would read nothing more into the postponement ofPresident Obama's trip than that he has to stay on and take careof this (crisis)," he told reporters in Manila.

"I'm very confident that he will reschedule and frankly itwill be a better visit if he's not on the phone having to callback home to get reports on the latest development there."

Secretary of State John Kerry will lead delegations to bothsummits in place of Obama. Kerry will also go to Malaysia andthe Philippines.

Obama phoned both President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and theSultan of Brunei to inform them of his decision, the White Housesaid.

Obama looks forward to working with Asian allies andreturning to the region at a later date, the White House said.

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