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.
It’s also unsurprising the commentators frame President Obama’s absence as a big win for China. Viewing international relations as a contest in which there is one winner and one loser is a classic misperception shared by many Americans and Chinese alike.
The Republicans in Congress undoubtedly have damaged America’s standing in Asia and the world by taking the national and global economy to the brink of disaster. This irresponsible governance, not President Obama’s decision to cancel his trip to Asia, is what is harming our interests in the region; such failures of governance would have struck a major blow regardless of whether or not the President had attended the regional meetings.