Last week, I expressed my skepticism that the Obama administration would be able to sustain its stated commitment to “rebalance” U.S. policy from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, given the priorities that the president laid out in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly. Barack Obama was supposed to correct that by undertaking a major visit to East Asia this weekend and next week, centered on the forthcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Indonesia and the ASEAN and East Asia summits in Brunei. The trip was to be an opportunity to demonstrate a renewed U.S. commitment to shoring up its relationships in a part of the world that is rapidly emerging as the nexus of the global economy.
But if the U.N. address led some to question the depth and sincerity of the administration’s focus on Asia, this week’s budget standoff and subsequent shutdown of the federal government call into doubt the Obama administration’s ability to sustain any long-term strategy for regional engagement. As a result of the domestic crisis, the president had initially been forced to cancel several legs of the journey, including stops in Malaysia and the Philippines, and the rest of the visit was subsequently called off due to the ongoing crisis over the budget and the debt ceiling at home.
Even had Obama gone through with the trip to meet with other regional leaders—once again crossing paths with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin—he would have done so from a position of comparative political weakness, with his counterparts wondering whether he has become a lame-duck president, unable to move his agenda forward. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, speaking in Seoul this week, was directly confronted with this question, noting that governments throughout the region are asking, “Can you rely on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its commitments?"