In Obama's absence, other leaders take center stage at APEC meeting

Asia watchers say president's decision may encourage China to be more aggressive in territorial disputes

From left: Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak, China's President Xi Jinping, Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and the Philippines' President Benigno Aquino wave as they take part in the traditional group photo at APEC Tuesday.
Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

China took center stage Monday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bali, Indonesia, without President Barack Obama, who decided to forgo the trip amid the United States' government shutdown. 

Some Asia watchers are calling Obama's absence at APEC a diplomatic disaster as Asian nations grapple with perennial territorial disputes with Beijing that have threated to break out into armed conflict in recent years, particularly in the South China Sea along heavily navigated shipping routes China shares with Southeast Asian nations. The area is thought to contain large deposits of oil and gas.

"What the president has done is grossly irresponsible," Gordon Chang, a China analyst and author of "The Coming Collapse of China," told Al Jazeera. "The president is basically saying, 'I don't have enough money to go to Asia,'" Chang said. "He's putting himself in such a hole. The Chinese sense this. They are going to be more aggressive than they have been."

On Monday, China urged Washington to take decisive steps to avoid a debt crisis, saying the U.S. government needed to ensure the safety of Chinese investments.

Last year, after Manila's standoff with Beijing over the Scarborough Shoal, 137 miles off the coast of the Philippines, China set up a barrier at the reef's entrance, turning away Philippine vessels.

China "saw its aggressive moves succeeded, so it ramped up its territorial disputes with Japan," Chang said, referring to Beijing's standoff with Tokyo over the disputed group of rocky outcrops called the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan.

Obama will also miss the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Brunei on Wednesday, as well as diplomatic visits to Malaysia and the Philippines.

Analysts say the two summits are missed opportunities for Obama, who was expected to push for the creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trading bloc that would be led by the U.S. and would exclude China. With the TPP, the U.S. aims to better economically integrate member countries through liberalized trade agreements.

Obama had set a goal of finishing negotiations on the TPP by the end of this year, and in skipping his Asia trip, he was unable to personally push negotiations forward.

Tied hands

Not everyone is convinced Obama had a choice about missing the APEC meeting.

"Yes, it is a diplomatic disaster to miss the APEC summit," said Michael Salman, a history professor at UCLA's Center for Southeast Asian Studies, "but it is a symptom of a larger and greater crisis. What is occurring in the United States right now is nothing less than a constitutional crisis."

"President Obama faced no good choices in his decision not to attend APEC," Salman said. "Missing the meeting is an international humiliation. But had he decided to attend, then his opponents would have accused him of making himself unavailable in a national crisis."

Obama, during an address Monday to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, urged Congress to pass legislation to reopen the government and raise the debt limit.

While the president waits for lawmakers to respond to calls to break Washington out of pecuniary paralysis, U.S. inaction in Asia threatens to pave the way for armed conflict, according to Chang.

"The Chinese are already intruding in airspace and water of countries we have an obligation to defend," he said. "The U.S. is not particularly concerned about what's happening in Asia. We don’t recognize the seriousness of the situation."

Other Asia analysts are less concerned that Obama's absence will represent a major turning point in the region's geopolitics, with Secretary of State John Kerry standing in to represent U.S. interests in the region.

"Southeast Asian nations aren't going to suddenly give in to China's positions on the South China Sea because Barack Obama didn't show up," Joshua Kurlantzick, Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera.

Michael Kulma, executive director of Global Leadership Initiatives at Asia Society, said that while Obama's absence was not a diplomatic disaster, it will affect how the United States is viewed in the region.

"There's a perception that ends up being created, and perceptions are important," he said.

Some Southeast Asian heads of state have already commented on Obama's absence.

"Obviously we prefer a U.S. government which is working to one which is not, and we prefer a U.S. president who is able to travel and fulfill his international duties to one who is preoccupied with his domestic preoccupations," Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Sunday, according to Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times.

Al Jazeera

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