How will Obama’s no-show be remembered?

Author: Rodolfo C. Severino, ISEAS

The last-minute cancellation of the American president’s participation in the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Bali, in the ASEAN–US Summit and East Asia Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, and of his bilateral visits to Malaysia and the Philippines not only highlights the long-predicted limitations of Washington’s ‘re-balancing’ or ‘pivot’ to East Asia. It gives China, amid its insecurities about the continuing American presence in China’s ‘backyard’, a golden, perhaps unwanted, opportunity for further assertiveness in its region and in the world at large.

To be sure, the aborted presence of President Obama in East Asia is merely symbolic; the presence of the United States, particularly of its navy in the Western Pacific, remains overwhelming. But, in diplomacy and in international relations generally, symbolism looms large and assumes transcendental importance.

The attendance and presence of Secretary of State John Kerry is no substitute for those of the top honcho himself.

For one thing, Obama has lost an opportunity to educate the many media representatives who usually travel with the American president and, through them, the American public, about East Asia and its importance to America. At the same time, East Asia lost an opportunity to project itself to the world; the US president and his relationships with the leaders of Japan, China, South Korea, Australia and Russia, who, among others, are expected to be both in Bali and in Brunei, are at the centre of the world media’s attention.

More importantly, the cancellation of Obama’s trip to this side of the world casts doubt on the reliability of US commitments and intentions, on which so many countries depend. It exposes for all to see how those commitments and intentions can be held hostage by the requirements of American domestic politics and the vagaries of developments in regions of the world that are — at least for now — much more turbulent than East Asia (notably, the Middle East).

Although President Xi Jinping’s and Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s attendances in annual international conferences and visits to individual countries were decided upon and planned a long time ago, the international media will likely portray the attendance and visits of China’s new leaders as a direct reaction or a contrast to Obama’s absence from East Asia at this critical time. Indeed, the media and some academic commentators have already started to do so.

For all we know, Obama’s absence will eventually be forgotten, like Bill Clinton’s no-show at the APEC leaders’ meeting and the performance of his vice president, Al Gore, in Kuala Lumpur 15 years ago. Its long-term impact may turn out to be ephemeral. Already, the organisations and countries most concerned are shrugging it off and muttering words of understanding.

However, this is no ordinary time in East Asia and in US–China relations. It is no ordinary time for US foreign policy. Although it is too early to tell, Obama’s no-show may yet turn out to be a turning-point.

Rodolfo C. Severino, former ASEAN Secretary-General, is head of the ASEAN Studies Centre in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The views expressed here are his own.

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