Obama says 'no lasting damage' from Asia absence

US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, October 8, 2013, as the crisis over a US government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff deepens on the 8th day of the shu
US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, October 8, 2013, as the crisis over a US government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff deepens on the 8th day of the shutdown. United States President Barack Obama insisted on Tuesday that his absence from twin summits would not hurt the US role in Asia but admitted that China may have been happy he canceled. -- PHOTO: AFP 

WASHINGTON (AFP) - United States President Barack Obama insisted on Tuesday that his absence from twin summits would not hurt the US role in Asia but admitted that China may have been happy he canceled.

Mr Obama has put a top priority on reorienting US foreign policy toward a continent marked by China's rise.

But he called off a four-nation trip as the federal government shut down in a standoff with the rival Republican Party.

Mr Obama told a news conference that Asian nations understood that the most important priority for the United States - and for its relations with the world - was to avoid a default that could come on Oct 17.

"So I don't think it's going to do lasting damage," Mr Obama said of his absence in Asia, while adding: "I should have been there."

Mr Obama insisted that the United States remained "the one indispensable nation" and said that Asian countries were drawn to Washington out of admiration for its economy and appreciation for its security role.

"It's not as if they've got other places to go. They want us to be there and they want to work with us," Mr Obama said.

But as he stayed in Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping racked up tens of billions of dollars in trade deals in Indonesia and Malaysia - countries that Mr Obama would have visited. Secretary of State John Kerry replaced Obama on the trip.

"I'm sure the Chinese don't mind that I'm not there right now," Obama said.

"There are areas where we have differences and they can present their point of view and not get as much of a pushback if I were there," he said.

Citing one example, Mr Obama renewed his call on Beijing to improve protection of intellectual property.

A US report earlier this year said that theft of innovation by China was costing the United States hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

The United States in recent years has rallied behind its allies Japan and the Philippines, as well as emerging partner Vietnam, in the face of increasingly tense territorial disputes with China.

Mr Obama had been due to pay his debut visit to the Philippines as well as the first visit by a US president in 47 years to Muslim-majority Malaysia, whose relations with Washington have been improving after the 1981-2003 rule of firebrand Mahathir Mohamad.

Instead, Mr Kerry will make those stops. He also represented the United States at a summit in Bali, Indonesia, and will go on to a second gathering in the tiny sultanate of Brunei.

US officials have frequently cited Mr Obama's attendance record at summits as a sign of his attention to Asia, although he also missed the Apec forum's meeting last year in Russia due to his re-election bid.

Mr Obama, in a revealing comment on the work of US officials to prepare for the summits, said: "It's almost like me not showing up to my own party."

Mr Obama said he hoped that Asian nations would see his absence as part of "the usual messy process of American democracy."

The Republican leadership which controls the House of Representatives has refused to vote to fund the government unless Obama guts his signature reform of expanding health care coverage to uninsured Americans.

Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader of Mr Obama's Democratic Party in the Senate, cited the cancelation of the Asia trip to press his case to resume funding.

"Who is there pontificating about how bad things are in America? The president of China," Mr Reid said.

Mr Xi, attending the Apec forum in Bali, offered veiled criticism over one of Mr Obama's key initiatives for Asia - the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an emerging free trade pact of 12 nations.

"China will commit itself to building a trans-Pacific regional cooperation framework that benefits all parties," said Xi.

The nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership - which include heavyweight Japan - have set a goal of reaching a deal by the end of the year, which even the most ardent proponents find to be ambitious.

Mr Obama has billed the trade agreement as a gold standard that will ensure labor rights and environmental protection.

But he would face stiff opposition within his own party.

Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat, said Tuesday he had seen a draft text and that the Trans-Pacific Partnership "appears to be no better than the deals of the past and, from what I can tell, may even be worse."