Apec 2013: Obama's no-show in Asia 'a golden opportunity for Xi'

China can boost influence as doubts grow over US commitment: Experts

UNITED States President Barack Obama's last-minute cancellation of his South-east Asian trip has gifted China with an opportunity to improve its influence and even repair damaged ties in the region, say analysts.

Mr Obama's no-show - to deal with a government shutdown triggered by a budget impasse - will deepen concerns over the US' financial woes and get Asean countries thinking harder about Washington's ability to fulfil its strategic commitments, they add.

Singapore-based analyst Ian Storey says that while Asean leaders understand why the US leader had to cancel his trip to Asia, they will "still be disappointed".

Mr Obama cancelled visits to the Philippines and Malaysia and will be represented by Secretary of State John Kerry at the three- day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Bali beginning today and the East Asia Summit in Brunei next week.

"Mr Obama's no-show will, however, reinforce concerns in South-east Asia that political in-fighting in Washington could prolong, or even worsen, America's economic difficulties and thus stall its pivot towards Asia," Dr Storey said.

The US' rebalancing efforts are seen as a counterweight to China's growing stature and assertiveness, especially over the South China Sea disputes which have soured Beijing's ties with Asean claimant-states like Vietnam and the Philippines.

While Mr Obama is being kept busy back home, China's President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang are on a charm offensive in the region.

After his trips to Indonesia and Malaysia, Mr Xi will attend the Apec summit. Mr Li, who will be visiting Thailand and Vietnam, will also attend the East Asia Summit in Brunei.

Dr Xu Liping, an Asean expert of the China Academy of Social Sciences, believes that Mr Obama's absence and the Chinese leaders' high-profile trips will impress on Asean members that the US is a faraway country and not a cash-rich neighbour like China.

"Obama's trip cancellation is undoubtedly an opportunity for China," he added.

Analysts believe South-east Asian countries might have a re-think about their relationship with Beijing and Washington.

"Asean leaders are very smart. They will be recalibrating how to work and cooperate with China and the US respectively, given the latest developments," Renmin University's Sino-US expert Shi Yinhong told The Straits Times.

Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang says countries will be "more cautious in trying to stay away from China" as they may deem it unwise to "wholeheartedly trust America to fulfil its strategic commitments to the region".

He believes China, seeing a window to improve ties with the region, would be more proactive in coming up with cooperative proposals. One example is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that Mr Xi proposed in Wednesday's speech to the Indonesian Parliament.

But not all believe that China stands to gain all that much.

"China has to do little to reap benefits from the dysfunctional political system that has hobbled the world's most powerful state," said Professor Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales.

"But nothing in Obama's cancellation will affect the current balance of power and US naval primacy in the western Pacific."

Peking University analyst Zha Daojiong's reading is that the US "continues to be truly at ease in interacting with South-east Asian countries". It is China that "can ill afford not to partake in such regional meetings".

"The real message from the US is that a no-show by its president won't entail many consequences, as South-east Asian capitals naturally will have to dial Washington first in times of need," he said.

Also, there are factors possibly limiting China's ability to capitalise on Mr Obama's absence.

One has to do with Mr Xi and Mr Li, both new in their roles and relatively inexperienced in foreign policy.

Regional countries' lingering fears over China's military will need more than just a couple of high-level visits to be dispelled, analysts said.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg