Obama Skips Asia (Again)
The President Needs to Make a Public Case for Engagement With Asia
The fact that President Obama canceled yet another trip to Asia (after having canceled his March trip and deciding to skip Indonesia in November) is disappointing. This makes sense from the narrow American political perspective; Obama is afraid the Gulf oil spill could become his “Hurricane Katrina” incident, exposing the U.S. government as aloof and unable to respond to crises.
But the message sent to the Asia-Pacific region is not a good one.
Australia, like the United States, is a “Pacific” but not an “Asian” power. While Japan has jumped at opportunities to build Asian economic and political institutions that exclude the United States, Australia under both liberal and conservative governments has eagerly sought to engage the United States in Asian institution-building. And it has been developing closer security ties with the United States, India, and Japan.
The United States should increase the scope of its cooperation with Australia on a host of important problems, from Chinese economic policies to regional security to the development of future regional institutions. The cost of failing to leverage these opportunities for cooperation will grow over time.
And then there’s Indonesia: a populous, moderate, largely Muslim, country of tremendous economic and strategic potential, with which President Obama has a unique personal connection. Besides the importance of Indonesia’s market, and the strategic interests shared by the United States and Indonesia, Indonesia may be the third-largest producer of greenhouse gasses, making bilateral cooperation essential to addressing the climate change priorities of the administration.
This is now the third time Indonesians have expected a visit that was never realized.
I think Ernie Bower of CSIS put it best:
The factor that must be addressed to prevent this situation from becoming endemic is that leaders—in this case, President Obama—must have the courage to explain to Americans why traveling to countries like Indonesia, the fourth-largest nation in the world, and Australia, a treaty ally and critical friend, is as important to our country’s economy and national security as an oil spill in the Gulf.
And just as President Obama has yet to explain to Americans why strategic engagement in the new nexus of global economic activity is crucial, he hasn’t demonstrated the political leadership to explain to Americans why trade engagement is crucial to future U.S. economic competitiveness (I’ve written about this before, for example, here and here).
The administration’s track record on Asia so far is lacking in political leadership. Some argued that after the health insurance reform was finally completed, Obama would pay more attention to these issues. Here’s to hoping.
*Image modified from world map in Wikimedia Commons.
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