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Obama Skips Asia (Again)

The President Needs to Make a Public Case for Engagement With Asia
5 June 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

The world as seen from Washington, DC.*

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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  • Kevin Slaten said:

    Love the map; a crack up!

    Agreement: Obama needs to make more Asian trips for the critical strategic reasons you’ve outlined.

    Disagreement: He should have gone to Asia despite the oil spill. While I agree with you that Obama needs to try to clarify the importance of strategic Asia relative to the oil spill, realistically, you and I both know that domestic crises (while still fresh) are much more vivid in the minds of most Americans. This visceral characteristic gives the oil spill a veto over Asia trips right now.

    Given this, along with all politicians’ first goal (to survive), Obama and any prudent politician would have stayed in the US.

    Moreover, as to the “ought”, the timeline of the oil spill is much shorter (in terms of tactical opportunities for political leverage and environmental progress) than Asian strategic balances. Objectively, the spill is a pressing “right now” imperative; there are tens of millions of gallons of oil getting ready to enter the ocean currents. (In this sense, perhaps the oil spill is a critical foreign policy issue!) But China’s rise is happening over quarters, years, and decades.

    Maybe a better choice for the Administration would have been to send other high-level officials to the same meetings with the promises of explicit dates that Obama would re-up his visit (within the next half year, perhaps).

  • Daniel Michaeli (author) said:

    A few thoughts–though I think my most central point is the one we agree on, that Obama needs to do a better job of explaining why Asia is crucial to future U.S. economic competitiveness and strategic relevance.

    1. I disagree that Obama has any opportunity, through personal presence in the United States right now, to make ANY difference in the environmental effects of the oil spill. On the political front, it’s also already too late for him to make much of a difference. If the spill had just occurred last week (actually, it happened in April…we’re now in June), I’d see this a bit differently. Canceling all his other work for three months in order to “personally” oversee the spill cleanup suggests that Obama is personally responsible, which is frankly just not true. He’s made appropriate policy responses, belatedly (suspending offshore licensing, launching an investigative commission, etc.), and anything else he could do can also be done from the air.

    2. A problem is other high-level officials have already been going to Australia and Indonesia. Sending even a secretary of state to a country portrays nowhere near the level of strategic attention conveyed by sending the president.

    3. In March, the timing of the health insurance vote was of Obama’s own making, even if the oil spill was not. After canceling a trip that was essentially ignored by Obama’s own schedulers in March (when they could have scheduled the vote for after the trip, for instance), canceling the trip again in June is really bad form and takes on greater meaning than if it were canceled for the first time. Add to that all the expectations that were built up for Obama’s November 2009 Asia trip.

    4. Asian strategic changes may be happening over time, but we’re being left behind by failing to engage, particularly on trade. I’m not just talking about China’s rise. I’m also talking about a shifting of global trade patterns in a way that is producing rising costs for American competitiveness. The U.S. simply can’t afford to continue isolating itself by looking only inwards.

  • Kevin Slaten said:

    1. Okay. I’ll agree that, on a reconstruction-level, Obama could be doing just as much from Asia. However, I still think he is getting a lot of political pressure to “be around” during this thing. (Make no mistake, this oil is still coming out fast.) And perception, as I think you can agree, is more important than objective engineering factors when you’re playing politics. If one takes media as a barometer, the oil spill still tops headlines every day. As the president (or a president’s advisor), do you risk having this be a permanent mark (see: Bush/Katrina) during your first term?

    2. Again, I agree that Obama needs to be there himself. But this is a given; it is the above issue (1) that is the key obstacle right now.

    3.Agreed that it was bad planning *if* they could have known that the oil spill was going to happen. They didn’t. Therefore, can you really blame politicians for a lack of such prescience?

    4. 100% agreed.

  • Tron said:

    Diaoyu Islands have been a part of China since the Ming Dynasty, US Congressman David Wu remarked in a statement at the Georgetown University.

    “Historically and geographically the Diaoyu Islands have been a part of China since the Ming Dynasty. Japanese sources have acknowledged Chinese ownership since the late 1700s,” said David Wu.

    Japan only laid claim to the islands after its war with China in 1895, David Wu added.

    In 1945 Japan agreed to accept the Potsdam Proclamation. And according to the proclamation, Japan should return to China/Taiwan and Diaoyu Islands it had illegally seized from China. Japan returned Taiwan to China but refused to return Diaoyu Islands to China.

    And in 1951 Japan unilaterally signed the San Francisco Treaty with the US, which enabled the US to exercise the so-called “administrative rights” over the Diaoyu Islands. But this illegal treaty has never been accepted by the China government.

    The US committed an error by letting Japan to manage the islands instead of returning the islands to China. This is an error made by the US that needs to be corrected, David Wu said.