Obama, Who Planned to Engage Southeast Asia, Once Again Cancels Trip to Indonesia, and Australia

By Patrick Goodenough | June 8, 2010 | 4:34 AM EDT

President Obama meets Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at the Oval Office on November 30, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s decision to cancel, once again, a visit to Australia and Indonesia may have won public understanding from the would-be host governments, but it does no favors for Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose dismal poll ratings could use a boost as elections draw nearer.
The White House late last week announced that Obama, regretfully, would not go ahead with the visit this month, due to the oil-spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.
It was the third time the trip – which also included Guam – has been put off. During the push to pass health care legislation in March, the trip was first postponed, then canceled altogether.
Indonesia additionally had been expecting a visit last November, when Obama visited Southeast Asia for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting. He chose not to visit the world’s most populous Islamic country – and one where he had spent several childhood years – but went to nearby Singapore for APEC, as well as to Japan, South Korea and China.
The decision to cancel the visit again drew comment, given Obama’s description of himself as “America’s first Pacific president” and administration officials’ assertions that the U.S. was “back” in Asia after years of supposed neglect by President Bush.
Ernie Bower, head of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in the Jakarta Globe that the cancellation “belies a narrative the Obama administration had tried to write that it was going to get Asia right and engage the region at the highest levels to advance American interests in a serious and sustained manner.”
“It was going to reverse the woeful attendance record of the Bush administration for showing up for the major events in Asia, and understood that ‘being there’ was more than half the battle for changing perceptions of U.S. disengagement,” he said.
“That story line has now lost its credibility.”
“Obama to Pacific Rim: Drop Dead,” ran the headline of a Foreign Policy piece by Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
He questioned the decision to give “the cold shoulder,” again, to the “vital supporter states” of Australia and Indonesia.
The director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, Walter Lohman, conceded that Obama did not control the timing of the oil-spill, but pointed to the earlier cancellation as the real problem.
“It’s not as if the administration didn’t know reforming one-sixth of the U.S. economy was going to be contentious, and the administration itself largely controlled the calendar,” he wrote on a Heritage Web site. “There should have been better coordination and balancing of priorities.”
“In March, President Obama chose his domestic political agenda over an important foreign commitment to steadfast allies in Australia, budding partners in Indonesia, and Guam,” Lohman said.
According to the White House, Obama will meet with Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the sidelines of a G-20 meeting in Toronto this month.
Rudd’s Australian Labor Party won the election in 2007 with a lead of almost seven percent over the conservative Liberal Party. From a lead over its main rival of 18 points last October, recent weeks have seen Labor running around three points behind the Liberals.
Australia must hold a federal election by next April at the absolute latest, but Rudd had been widely predicted to call one in August or September, timed to benefit from the expected visit by Obama and his family in June.
Now that the visit has been canceled again, the election date could either be pushed back until much later in the year, or Rudd will have to abandon the idea of poll-boosting photo-ops with the American president ahead of the campaign.
A visit during the campaign – which in Australia usually runs for more than a month, during which the government goes into “caretaker” mode – would be politically insensitive.
Exactly when Obama will now visit Australia and Indonesia remains unclear, but November, the month Indonesian media speculate is most likely, is filling up fast.
Obama confirmed last week that he would take up an invitation to visit India in “early November” – presumably en route to consecutive G20 and APEC summits in South Korea and Japan respectively, both of which Obama is expects to attend.
In the closing days of October there also is a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Vietnamese hosts have invited Obama to visit, both because this year marks the 15th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam ties but also because one of the meetings scheduled in Hanoi is billed an ASEAN-U.S. Leaders Meeting.
Squeezing Indonesia and Australia between ASEAN and India might make scheduling sense, except for the pressing matter of the midterm elections at home.
Although his detractors say Bush did not give the Asia-Pacific region the attention it deserved, he did attend the APEC summit every year during his two terms. President Clinton skipped APEC summits in Japan in 1995 and in Malaysia in 1998, sending Vice President Gore in his place.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow