- The Washington Times - Monday, October 7, 2013

President Obama’s decision to skip the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bali, Indonesia, because of the government crisis in Washington has fellow Pacific Rim leaders and outside observers questioning whether his absence sends a larger signal about a U.S. weakening commitment to the globe’s most dynamic economic region.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking from the APEC summit, called Mr. Obama’s absence “a very big disappointment to us.” Secretary of State John F. Kerry is heading the American delegation in his absence.

“Obviously, we prefer a U.S. government that is working to one that 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 national domestic preoccupations,” Mr. Lee added.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera echoed Mr. Lee’s views, saying that Washington had to find a way to face its economic problems “in a better way than they are doing it now with shutting down the government.”

Critics have worried that China in particular will use this week’s APEC summit to showcase its rapidly modernizing armed forces and regional economic influence. Many of the smaller powers in APEC had pushed explicitly for greater American investment and trade to serve as a counterweight to Beijing’s rising clout. Mr. Obama also skipped the 2012 APEC gathering in Vladivostok, Russia, because it conflicted with the Democratic nominating convention.

Indonesian defense analyst Bantarto Bandoro told the Jakarta Post, “For now, U.S. domestic political reality hinders the country’s capacity and outreach to make its presence and influence felt far from home. This could be the end of American global dominance.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called Mr. Obama’s absence a missed “golden opportunity” that would have allowed the U.S. “to show leadership in that context of the new emphasis towards Asia.”

Kerry Brown, executive director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Center, said that the summit will prove to be a defining moment for China.

“It shows that China has a functional government and America doesn’t at the moment,” Mr. Brown said in an interview with the Japan Times. “It’s just another sign that America is kind of losing its luster, losing its status.”

In addition to APEC, Mr. Obama scrubbed side visits to Malaysia and the Philippines to stay in Washington.

Other observers were more understanding of Mr. Obama’s non-attendance.

“The U.S. economy is the No. 1 economy in the world, what happens there affects all of us,” said Philippine President Benigno S.C. Aquino III.

Mr. Kerry tried to address the fears of business leaders head on in a speech Monday to corporate executives attending the APEC gathering.

“No one should mistake what is happening in Washington as anything more than a moment in politics. We’ve all seen it before and we’ll probably see it again,” he said. “But I guarantee you, we will move beyond this and we will move beyond it with strength and determination.”

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said Mr. Obama and the American government should focus on avoiding a federal government default later this month, warning that it could affect “the entire planet, and not just those countries with a strong geographical and economic linkage to the U.S.”

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa remained confident that APEC would go smoothly without Mr. Obama.

“Obama’s absence is a bit of a disappointment but the show must go on,” Mr. Natalegawa said in an interview with Indonesia’s Jakarta Post. “Of course, it would be wonderful to have President Obama participating in a forum like APEC, but in recent times, Indonesia-U.S. engagement in the region has been very good.”

But the summit’s traditional leadership group photo reflected the changing dynamics of the region: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin were shown front and center next to the host government, while Mr. Kerry was relegated to a corner of the back row.



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