Asia watchers have furiously proclaimed that President Barack Obama's decision to cancel his upcoming trip signifies the decline of U.S. influence in the Pacific and a boon to China. Obama was supposed to visit Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Brunei from Oct. 6 to Oct. 12, attending summits in the latter two countries. By skipping the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) and the leaders' meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to focus on the U.S. government shutdown, Asia watchers allege, Obama's much-heralded "rebalance" or "pivot" to Asia is kaput. This means China, according to analysts like Ian Storey, "will have the floor to itself."
Let's not overreact. U.S. budget cuts and policy drift may call into question the six-decade role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific -- missing these events will not. Yes, it would have been better for Obama to join his fellow Asian leaders for several days of schmoozing. But Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to those four countries instead of Obama; ongoing negotiations and dialogues on security and economics will continue. When the shutdown ends, and the government returns to business as usual, Obama's cancellation will be quickly forgotten.
Here are five reasons why the furor over the president canceling his trip is overblown.
1. It doesn't change America's presence in Asia.
The bedrock of U.S. policy is its diplomatic relationships and alliance structure -- which the cancellation will not affect. None of the roughly 330,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel assigned to Pacific Command will disappear, nor will any of the dozens of U.S. embassies and consulates in Asia close.
What does threaten the U.S. position in Asia, however, is dysfunction in Washington. In the short term, the shutdown constrains the State Department's ability to run embassies and provide consular services, like visa processing. More worryingly, over the next decade the U.S. government will cut over $1 trillion from the budget of the U.S. military and diplomatic corps. Because of this, the U.S. military will be less able to fulfill its basic commitments and responsibilities -- it's already cutting back on things like training schedules, joint exercises, and regular flying hours. And a smaller State Department budget means reducing the number and scope of cultural exchange programs, conferences, and student exchanges, making it harder for the United States to build grassroots connections with Asian nations. Moreover, the shutdown embarrasses U.S. leaders visiting the region, who have to try and explain the gridlock to their Asian counterparts.
2. Nothing happens at these summits, anyway.
While Asian leaders will, of course, notice Obama's absence, both APEC and ASEAN are talk shops. U.S. allies and partners value them -- which is why American officials attend -- but everyone understands the summits are merely photo-ops. Missing the meetings will not isolate the United States from the major events or trends in Asia.