White House weighing Asia trip cancellation

White House weighing Asia trip cancellation

WASHINGTON - The White House said Thursday President Barack Obama was still evaluating whether to travel to Asia this weekend, but hinted he was unlikely to go if the US government remains closed.

The budget impasse which has shuttered government departments and sent hundreds of thousands of federal workers home is leaving Obama torn between his political priorities at home and important foreign policy goals.

The president has already cancelled plans to visit Malaysia and the Philippines at the back end of the trip and now must decide whether to go ahead and visit the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bali and the East Asia summit in Brunei.

"We are evaluating the president's trip in light of the shutdown ... regularly and daily," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

But Carney also appeared to hint that it was unlikely Obama would head to Asia if the government shutdown is not resolved by the time of his scheduled departure on Saturday.

"If the speaker of the House allows a vote and allows the majority to speak, the government will reopen right away," Carney said.

"And obviously, that would affect the way we determine presidential travel."

There was no sign Thursday that a resolution to the dispute was imminent, with both sides in entrenched positions, so a sudden reopening of the government in a scenario mentioned by Carney seemed unlikely.

Political common sense would suggest that Obama would not give his domestic foes an opening and travel to the other side of the globe as a bitter political standoff endures at home.

Republicans would be sure to suggest that the president had been seduced by the prospect of striding the world stage while neglecting his duties at home.

There was also a sense, given Obama's spiky rhetoric during a speech Thursday in which he accused Republicans of mounting a "reckless" farce, that the White House believes it has the upper hand in the standoff.

Leaving Washington would rip Obama from the frontlines of the media tussle with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, until the middle of next week.

His absence could also nudge the crisis closer to its next critical moment - the October 17 deadline for Congress to lift the US statutory borrowing limit, without which the US government could tumble into default for the first time.

But there are solid geopolitical reasons for Obama to pause before canceling a trip designed to advance a central prong of his foreign policy - a rebalancing of military and diplomatic resources to rising Asia.

A no-show by Obama would allow US competitors in the region - specifically China, to make the case that despite its rhetoric about being an indispensible Pacific power, Washington is an unreliable partner who may not be in the region for the long haul.

"I think there's a lot at stake here with this trip," said Ernie Bower, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The geopolitical ramifications of the president not making a trip if he decides indeed that he has to cancel this weekend - it would leave a big geopolitical mark."

Bower argued that US allies would also question the extent of Obama's commitment to the region.

There would also be concern that Washington lacks the political focus and capital to spend on the pivot to Asia, Bower said.

"I think that will be put in serious question."

If he does not go to Asia, Obama will also miss a chance to rub shoulders with leaders like China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin, key players on geopolitical crises from Syria to North Korea.

Xi already appears to be capitalizing on Obama's curtailed plans - flying the flag on a visit to Malaysia, which now lists China as its largest trading partner after it overtook the United States.

Obama in his first term, sensed an opening with Southeast Asian nations irked by Beijing's increasingly abrasive foreign policy and power plays in simmering maritime territorial disputes in the region.

But the exit of administration heavyweights like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and national security advisor Tom Donilon - both closely identified with the pivot - have deprived US Asia policy of a figurehead.

Obama ran for office on a platform of extricating the United States from the Middle East but has found himself pulled back into the region following sudden overtures from Iran and after threatening military action in Syria only to partner with Russia on a pact to disarm the Assad regime's chemical weapons.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who will travel to Malaysia and the Philippines in Obama's place, has been pivotal in Middle East peacemaking and in the Syria and Iran initiatives, and has yet to show the same enthusiasm for the Asia pivot as Clinton did.

Senior administration officials however point to repeated visits to the region by Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and noted their commitment to concluding a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) region-wide trade deal as proof of US commitment.

They also cite Obama's repeated travel to Asia, most recently in November last year, when he visited Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.

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