Obama's Asia focus blurred by pressures from shutdown to Mideast

David J. Lynch

Published: Thursday, Oct. 3 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

U.S. President Barack Obama attends the East Asia Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012.

Heng Sinith, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is trying to keep his foreign policy pivot from becoming a revolving door.

Civil war in Syria, a military coup in Egypt and hints of a rapprochement with Iran are diverting the president's attention from Asia, where he sees the future, to the Middle East, where he risks being consumed by the past.

The government shutdown dominating Washington politics is further imperiling the president's signature overseas initiative. Obama Wednesday curtailed a trip planned for Asia next week because of the political impasse at home.

"What's happening in Syria, Iran and the like take up an enormous amount of oxygen," said Kurt Campbell, an architect of Obama's Asia policy before leaving the State Department this year. "There are deeply consequential things playing out there right now that demand a high degree of American engagement. At the same time, there are also pressures domestically."

Those twin forces put at risk a presidential policy designed to enhance U.S. standing in a region adjusting to China's continued economic and military emergence. Asia will witness almost half of global economic growth outside the United States in the next five years, according to the White House. And ripples from the rise of an increasingly assertive China are unsettling U.S. allies from Japan to the Philippines.

Middle Eastern tumult isn't the only threat to Obama's Asia focus. As he prepares to depart on Oct. 5 for his trip, the prospect of almost $1 trillion in Pentagon spending cuts over the next decade shadows his plans to raise the U.S. military profile in the region. Demands from 60 senators for action on "foreign currency manipulation" also complicate a proposed 12- nation trade zone linking some 40 percent of the world economy.

The distractions have sparked doubts about whether the so- called pivot to Asia is all talk and little action. After Obama devoted almost his entire Sept. 24 United Nations address to Iran's nuclear program and the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace, those concerns deepened.

"Is the pivot to Asia in the second-term Obama administration sustainable with all the attention to the Middle East?" asked Dino Djalal, ndonesian Ambassador to the U.S., at a Sept. 25 conference in Washington. "Our relations are still below our potential."

Administration officials say the U.S. can focus on more than one region. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sept. 27 the Asian rebalancing is "a priority," adding, "the entire administration is committed to this initiative."

And the Pentagon has vowed to protect the planned redeployment of naval and air forces to Asian missions, even as it tightens its belt elsewhere.

The diplomatic shift dates to November 2011 when then- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that, after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. stood at "a pivot point" and must devote a "substantially increased investment" to Asia.

It was the rare Obama initiative that enjoyed Republican acceptance. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said in July, "I don't think there's any disagreement on the goodness of rebalancing to Asia."

The economic case is no secret. While the U.S. was preoccupied with the Mideast, Asia — led by China — has flowered. Since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Asian equities have outperformed stocks in the U.S. and Europe. The MSCI Asia APEX 50 index has risen more than 200 percent since then, double the Standard & Poor's 500 index gain and more than six times the increase in the Euro Stoxx 50 index. The MSCI Asia index is up 1 percent this year.

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