Michael Green served on the US National Security Council staff from 2001-2005. He is now Senior Vice President for Asia at CSIS and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.
President Obama has cut Malaysia and the Philippines from his itinerary for his upcoming Asia trip, but still appears ready to make the APEC and EAS meetings in Indonesia and Brunei. However, with the US government still shut down and the Republican Congress and White House at loggerheads, the entire trip could still be cancelled at the last minute.
How bad would that be for US influence in the region? Pretty bad, is the answer, though the Administration could recover with intense diplomacy in the early part of next year. In 1995, President Clinton cancelled his trip to Osaka for APEC because of a similar government shutdown, but he doubled down in April and made trips to Japan and Korea that resulted in major new initiatives in those alliances and restored US credibility, at least in North Asia.
On the other hand, when Clinton skipped the Kuala Lumpur APEC summit in 1998, the result was more serious. He sent Vice President Al Gore, who made his famous and ill-advised 'reformasi' speech attacking the host government at a time when APEC itself was at a crossroads and American credibility was hurting because of the rigid response from Washington to the financial crisis in the region. The geostrategic damage, particularly in Southeast Asia, was considerable and lasting.
This time, the pressure on the Obama Administration to demonstrate its commitment to the region is far more intense.
For one thing, Asia is more important today. The President also dug himself in a hole with a UN speech which telegraphed that his highest priority for the rest of his term would be the Middle East. With Hillary Clinton out and John Kerry already appearing to push away from Asia, the timing of a cancelled trip to the region could not be worse.
The President probably will not cancel, but if he does, the Administration had better put together a very impressive trip and package of deliverables for early next year.
Meanwhile, US Trade Representative Mike Froman is pushing hard to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with the general view in Washington being that Australia will be the hardest negotiating partner in the end. Secretary of Defense Hagel has made three trips to the region already and the US military is steadily transitioning assets, training and personnel towards the Pacific.
But the budget battles in the Congress cast big shadows over those two forward-moving parts of the pivot. Froman does not yet have Trade Promotion Authority, and is therefore still guessing what Congress will tolerate in a TPP deal. Last time, in 2001, the House of Representatives passed TPA by only one vote, and that was only after intense phone calls from President Bush to numerous members. It is not clear Obama will be inclined or able to do the same after the current war with Congress. And while defense continues to shift its focus to the Pacific, the sequestration and budget wars leave the Pentagon uncertain about how much stuff it will actually have to shift.
This is a bad patch in American democratic governance. It is not one unique to Washington, since most governments are struggling with governance in the age of austerity. But it does put a premium on consistent presidential engagement abroad, particularly in Asia.