SHUTDOWN SLOWS DOWN PIVOT
The federal government shutdown is encroaching on the Obama administration’s policy of shifting attention and resources toward Asia, also called “the pivot.”
The policy’s latest casualty: President Obama’s visit to Asia, beginning Saturday. He is skipping visits to the Philippines and Malaysia, two Southeast Asian countries that face growing threats from China’s naval and maritime encroachment upon disputed islands. Instead, Mr. Obama will visit Brunei, Bali and Indonesia for regional summits.
“Malaysia and Philippines are the countries most threatened by China in that region,” said one U.S. official critical of the snub. “Instead, the president is going to the playground of the rich and famous in Bali and Brunei.”
The Philippine government’s dispute with China is centered on the Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing claims as its territory.
A new regional challenge, according to U.S. intelligence reports, involves threats from China against Malaysia’s South Luconia Shoals, underwater reefs said to contain vast resources of oil and gas that Beijing is eyeing for its energy-hungry economy.
Chinese government maritime surveillance ships recently were observed cruising near the shoals, and the activities set off alarms among senior Malaysian officials concerned about losing energy resources to China.
In March, China’s navy conducted a major patrol and training mission on James Shoal, a reef 50 miles from the Malaysian coast. The naval task force included a large amphibious landing ship.
Mr. Obama had been scheduled to meet in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. The summit was to have bolstered ties between the two countries.
Now, U.S. officials fear a key Southeast Asian friend will be intimidated by Beijing and drift into the Chinese orbit of influence.
“They are very concerned about China and rightly so,” the U.S. official said of the Malaysians.
China has claimed 90 percent of the South China Sea, bringing Beijing into disputes with most of the nations in the region that look to the United States to be a counterbalancing force. Those nations are growing more concerned as they see steep cuts in U.S. defense spending.
China recently expanded a major naval base with new attack submarines on Hainan island at the north end of the South China Sea. Defense analysts say the base is a power-projection tool for China’s territorial claims.
Officials said they hope the president’s speech in Bali on Monday will include tough words for China and its maritime claims, and offer reassurances to American friends that the U.S. Navy will continue to maintain freedom of navigation in Asia as a counterweight to China’s growing naval power.
The White House announced Wednesday that the president canceled the planned stops after discussions with officials from the Southeast Asian states.
Asked about criticism from officials opposed to the president’s cancellations of visits to Malaysia and the Philippines, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to comment.
She said the visits were “logistically not possible” because of the shutdown and were postponed. Instead, Secretary of State John F. Kerry will lead the delegations to both countries, she said.
“The cancellation of this trip is another consequence of the House Republicans forcing a shutdown of the government,” Ms. Hayden said, adding that the shutdown is “setting back our ability to promote U.S. exports and advance U.S. leadership in the largest emerging region in the world.”
Army Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of U.S. military forces in Korea, says Pyongyang’s new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-08, poses a threat because of the difficulty of tracking and targeting the hard-to-find systems.