Obama's pullout raises concerns

Apec members greet cancellation of his trip with disappointment

A growing political crisis at home has forced United States President Barack Obama to call off his visit to South-east Asia, a move greeted here with a mixture of disappointment and concerns about the future of his administration's strategy to "pivot" to the region.

White House officials had hoped to salvage part of his trip by sacrificing visits to Malaysia and the Philippines, and just focusing on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit on this resort island in Indonesia and the US-Asean meeting and East Asia summit in Brunei next week.

But early yesterday morning (Singapore time), Mr Obama telephoned Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah to express his regrets, reiterate his commitment to the region and say that Secretary of State John Kerry, already in Japan, would attend the meetings in his place.

Indonesia expressed understanding. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Mr Obama's absence would not affect the progress of the Apec meetings, while Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan described it as "regrettable, but understandable".

"The show must go on," Mr Gita said.

Indeed it will as leaders from Russia, Japan, China, Singapore and 16 other economies gather here to push trade in a sluggish global marketplace.

Not only has the ongoing impasse in Washington already shut down the US government and prompted growing worries about its debt ceiling; now many analysts see Mr Obama's decision to scrap his trip as benefiting China, whose top two leaders are on a charm offensive as they tour five Asean countries in two weeks.

The Kremlin also expressed disappointment over the cancellation of a trip that could have seen Russian President Vladimir Putin discuss the Syrian crisis with Mr Obama.

In Bali's prime resort area, a tight security cordon was in place as the leaders started arriving.

US Trade Representative Michael Froman joined talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with ministers from 11 other nations to hammer out a free trade deal. Mr Kerry arrived in the afternoon for an Apec Ministerial Meeting.

Apec secretariat executive director Alan Bollard told The Straits Times that, despite Mr Obama's cancellation, "the American team has been working through the year, and the officials' work continues at the same pace".

But the Singapore-based Pacific Economic Cooperation Council said yesterday the political stalemate in the US could "pose a risk to the growth of the Asia-Pacific region at a time when recovery from the global crisis remains shaky". Washington-based observers also said Mr Obama's absence sends a worrying signal.

Mr Ernest Bower of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said in a commentary that US allies and partners in the region will worry that the US is incapable of sustaining high-level engagement due to political paralysis at home. "Others will read the decision to stay home as weakness," he said.

zakirh@sph.com.sg

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