SEOUL | U.S. allies expressed their disappointment Sunday over President Obama’s cancellation of his trip to an Asia-Pacific summit because of the partial American government shutdown, as U.S. officials tried to reassure them of Washington’s commitment to the region.
“Obviously we prefer a U.S. government which is working to one which is not,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
“And we prefer a U.S. president who is able to travel to fulfill his international duties to one who is preoccupied with his domestic preoccupations.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized that the United States is still engaged in the region.
“Do not mistake this momentary episode in American politics as anything more than a moment of politics,” Mr. Kerry said Sunday at the summit.
Mr. Obama called off his trip last week after Congress failed to agree on a spending plan, triggering a shutdown of some government offices.
The Obama administration announced its “pivot” to Asia in 2011 and its intention to deepen economic, diplomatic and security relationships with Asia-Pacific allies to counter growing Chinese power and a North Korean threat. But analysts say the strategic shift has been overhyped, causing doubt among Asia-Pacific allies who expected to see more U.S. engagement in the region.
The administration has made some progress with the pivot over the past four years. It has increased high-level visits to the region, negotiated a free-trade agreement and increased development assistance. The administration has also strengthened military ties with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and, recently, Myanmar.
However, plans to shift military assets to the region have been slowed by deep and sudden U.S. defense cuts.
“[The pivot’s] been weakly implemented,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “If it were an engine, it would need more power to all three cylinders.”
On Oct. 2, a senior columnist for Korea JoongAng Daily, one of South Korea’s top three newspapers, lamented that Washington’s “strategic patience” toward North Korea was turning into “strategic neglect.”
The rogue regime has exhibited increasingly belligerent behavior in the past year, conducting its third nuclear test in February in violation of international law, threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” and hit the United States with a nuclear missile.
Satellite imagery shows that North Korea has recently restarted its plutonium-based nuclear reactor, expanded its uranium enrichment facility and enhanced its missile launch facility, said Mr. Klingner, a 20-year CIA veteran.
U.S. officials say the threat from North Korea’s nuclear program has grown in the past five years. However, they are unsure of its status because of the difficulty of getting U.S. spies into the closed communist country.
“We don’t know how many nuclear weapons they have and how they would deliver them,” Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, deputy commander of U.N. Command in South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there, said in a briefing last week.