How Much Does China Benefit from the U.S. Government Shutdown?

President Obama's canceled trip to East Asia has raised doubts over Washington's “pivot to Asia”—but further American disengagement from the region seems unlikely.
China's President Xi Jinping (L) shakes hands with Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in front of Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (C), as they walk to their venue for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit family photo in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali October 8, 2013. (Reuters)

Last week as the U.S. Federal Government shut down, President Obama canceled his planned trip to Indonesia and Brunei, where he was to have attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bali. Some foreign policy analysts have argued the canceled trip will inflict serious damage to the United States’ position in Asia. Council on Foreign Relations President, Richard Haass, writing yesterday in Politico, said Obama’s absence “makes a mockery” of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia and would give China the upper hand in the region. We asked ChinaFile contributors for their thoughts.—The Editors

Winston Lord:

I am as frustrated as any. The same Asian summit trip cancellation because of an economic fight in the U.S. Congress happened when I was Assistant Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton. We quickly repaired the damage.

It is a setback, but reparable with early revisits and other steps.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry’s “two-plus-two” meeting in Tokyo was very productive and some solace. Nations of the region will base their policies on security and economic concerns, on all the steps we have taken the past four years, and on our actions over time, not on pique. Some reports from the region already suggest this, not apocalyptic conclusions.


Susan Shirk:

Americans, particularly those of us on the West Coast, like to talk about the Asia-Pacific and emphasize that the U.S. is a Pacific country.  But the reality is that it’s a very long way—and a grueling journey even with a nonstop flight—from Washington D.C. to Beijing.  Asian leaders regularly visit one another’s capitals for one day of meetings. The tyranny of distance makes it much harder to get American senior officials out to Asia.  The distance also makes Asian countries, especially our allies, worry that when push comes to shove, the U.S. might abandon them because of preoccupations in other regions or at home.  How to make our commitments in the region credible has been a constant challenge to U.S. policymakers over many administrations.

The Obama administration came into office determined to increase American involvement in Asia in all dimensions—economically, diplomatically, and militarily—in order to avoid marginalizing ourselves from the most dynamic  region of the world and to reassure our friends and allies that they could count on us.  The diplomatic effort involved participating in regional multilateral institutions as well as nurturing bilateral ties.  It tried to span the distance by appointing the first U.S. ambassador to ASEAN who was resident in Jakarta.  The Asia initiative—the so-called pivot—set the bar very high in terms of frequency of visits by senior officials.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her first overseas trip to Asia and returned there very frequently over her tenure.  The President and other senior officials also knocked themselves out traveling to Asia.  The administration made a point of promising that it would always show up for important Asian regional meetings.  It raised unrealistic expectations about how often Asians would see our senior officials. Now that the President has had to cancel his participation in the APEC leaders meeting and the East Asian Summit to remain at the helm in D.C. because of the government shutdown and looming possibility of a default, it is not surprising that commentators are quick to condemn him for failing to live up to his promises.  

ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in China

Just In