U.S. shutdown costs longer-term relations with Asia

By SHIHOKO GOTO, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Oct. 11, 2013 at 1:02 PM   |   0 comments

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- No good has come from the political deadlock plaguing Washington. But the U.S. government shutdown and looming fears about the nation's debt levels have hurt the country's relations with Asia particularly hard.

Even if the U.S. Congress is able to reach a compromise soon to get back to business as usual, U.S. relations with the Asia-Pacific region may suffer in the longer term.

What's more, it may give further impetus to China as well as its neighboring nations to envisage an Asia with an ever-decreasing U.S. presence. Reversing such a perception and undoing the damage done due to days of U.S. inaction will require considerable and consistent commitment from Washington for the long haul.

Certainly, U.S. President Barack Obama's no-show at the APEC summit meeting in Indonesia earlier this month has only strengthened fears across the region that the United States is beginning to turn back on its earlier strategy to focus more heavily on Asia not just economically, but also militarily and politically as well.

While the rationale for the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region from the Middle East made sense two years ago as the United States began its retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan, that strategy has come under increasing cynicism in recent months.

Syria's civil war has highlighted the fact that the Middle East remains a top priority for U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, U.S. inaction toward the Assad regime, coupled with the fact that Obama was forced to cancel his long-planned APEC trip, has highlighted just how weak the White House can be.

Yet the most permanent damage from the shutdown may have been on the economic front. In addition to sitting out the APEC meeting in Bali, Obama was also absent from the latest round of the biggest trade negotiations currently being fleshed out.

Representing about 40 percent of total global gross domestic product, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is the most ambitious trade deal to date, which has been regarded as the economic arm of redefining U.S. engagement in Asia.

As the biggest among the 12 member countries of the TPP, the United States has invariably played a key role in pushing the agreement forward as the deadline to conclude a deal looms at the end of the year. U.S. absence from the latest round of negotiations, however, has increased the odds of the TPP negotiations not being able to meet the December deadline.

More worrisome for the United States, though, is the fact that should the TPP deal falter or be watered down, Washington will lose its sole opportunity to be part of Asia's biggest trade zone to date.

On the other hand, there are alternative deals to the TPP in Asia including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership deal to which the United States is not a party of. China, on the other hand, is excluded from TPP but is an integral part of the RCEP pact.

Should the TPP talks be postponed or break down altogether, it would only increase the possibility of China to take on a greater role in defining the trade rules for the region in the longer term.

The fact is, though, that many even in countries like Japan, which remains a staunch U.S. ally, are beginning to regard Washington's political impasse as the beginning of the end of U.S. influence in the region.

Tokyo's relations with Beijing may still be frosty at best, but there is growing expectation that it is China, not the United States, that will wield greater influence in defining the economic as well as political and security landscape of the region.

In short, the United States is being seen as an increasingly unreliable ally, even as the region grapples with numerous risks including a rapidly militarizing China and nuclear aspiring North Korea.

One thing is clear: as the U.S. debt ceiling reaches closer to its limit and policymakers unable to agree on the next steps, Washington hardly inspires confidence overseas. Even if a compromised is reached on Capitol Hill within the next few days, it will take months, if not years, to undo the damage that has been done over the past two weeks.

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(Shihoko Goto is the Northeast Asia associate of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Asia Program in Washington. She was formerly senior business correspondent at United Press International.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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