US focus on Asia not hit: Kerry

PHOTO: US focus on Asia not hit: Kerry

US Secretary of State John Kerry sought to reassure America's partners in the region that President Barack Obama's absence from this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings did not diminish his administration's commitment to Asia or affect its pivot towards the region.

He also cautioned against reading too much into the ongoing US government shutdown that kept Mr Obama in Washington - or the suggestion that countries like China could take advantage of it.

"To all of our friends and foes around the world: Do not mistake this momentary episode in American politics for anything less than a moment of politics or anything more than a moment of politics," he said on Saturday.

"I want to make clear: What is happening in Washington does not diminish one iota of our commitment to our partners in Asia, or our commitment to promote trade and investment to the region."

His remarks, made at a hastily announced press conference, appeared to be aimed at calming concerns that Mr Obama's cancellation of his visit a day earlier would be seen as a sign of weakness and cede diplomatic space to others.

Mr Kerry arrived in Bali on Friday to join US Trade Representative Michael Froman for a scheduled Apec ministerial meeting involving officials from 21 member economies that ended on Saturday.

He will also take Mr Obama's place alongside other regional leaders at their meeting tomorrow and on Tuesday, and at a meeting of leaders of the 12 economies involved in negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

However, he admitted that Mr Obama's absence "obviously undermines the President's ability to have the conversations he was going to have" with Chinese President Xi Jinping, or the meeting planned with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Xi arrived on Saturday evening and Mr Putin is slated to arrive today, and both will speak tomorrow. But Mr Kerry said these leaders also "know well enough that in the long term, this will end".

The United States will have a budget and will still be the largest power in the world in terms of its military capability, and the world's largest economy, Mr Kerry noted.

"I don't believe that anyone believes that this is a moment of weakness," he added. "There isn't one leader here who wouldn't make the same decision if they had to deal with a domestic challenge."

Mr Kerry said: "President Obama began a rebalance to this region in the course of his first four years, and we intend to continue that over the course of his second term.

"And by breaking down barriers to trade and movement across the region, Apec helps promote stronger relationships and adds to its peace and prosperity."

He also felt the political stalemate back home nevertheless reflected the robustness of American democracy "for people to make their voices heard, at times we think incorrectly".

But for some, there was never any doubt about the message.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters it was important to underscore that "US engagement in the region is a process, not an event. Mr Obama's cancellation should not be viewed as inimical to US engagement in the region".

zakirh@sph.com.sg


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