After the ongoing government shutdown led President Barack Obama to back out of a long-planned summit in Indonesia, Secretary of State John Kerry, who went in Obama’s stead, took a hardline stance toward the partisan bickering in Washington.
Kerry’s tone turned aggressive during a media appearance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bali on Saturday, launching a spirited attack on Republican members of Congress for spurring the federal shutdown that forced Obama to cancel his visit to the summit and to three other nations in the region.
Kerry slammed the “reckless” attitude of “political silliness” and urged GOP Congressmen “to think long and hard about the message we send to the world when we cannot get our own act together.” However, he assured fellow member states that “nothing of what is happening in Washington diminishes one iota our commitment to Asia and the rebalancing” — referring to the shutdown now in its fifth day as a mere “moment” that will soon be resolved.
That recalibration of relations with the Asian region was the much-discussed narrative for Obama’s attendance at the summit. The 21-member APEC bloc, an alliance of Asian and American nations bordering the Pacific, is seen as key to the Obama administration’s strategic focus on the fast-growing region, called “the pivot to Asia.” American exports to APEC member states currently breach three trillion dollars, amounting to half of all export GDP, and Kerry drummed up the efforts of his U.S. delegation, now enhanced with two other cabinet members, to build on this further. “I’m not here for four hours, I’m here for five days … and altogether will be in this part of the world for almost two weeks,” he said, referring to forthcoming visits to the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Obama was also due to chair summit discussions regarding the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, but that role will now be taken by New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. TPP has been touted as a level playing field between the world’s developed nations and its fastest growing region, easing tariffs and trade barriers in the member countries that account for 40% of world trade. The deal is still in line to be completed this year, according to U.S. officials, although analysts warn of distinct unease amongst Asian nations at America’s perceived lukewarm engagement in the region, especially considering enduring involvement in the restive Middle East. “Most Asian countries are taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude — there’s a lot of skepticism in the sense that this is so far just talk and not action,” says Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist specializing in Southeast Asia for the Rand Corp., a global-policy think tank.
Chinese President Xi Jinping touched down in Bali shortly after Kerry’s speech, fresh from a dazzling turn on his own regional tour. Xi this week become the first foreigner to address the Indonesian Parliament, where he pledged billions of dollars in enhanced trade, and then flew to Malaysia, currently subject of a strategic tug-of-war between Beijing and Washington for influence. His star showing makes Obama’s shutdown-induced cancellation even more galling for regional analysts. “The U.S. needs a vehicle to develop these types of working relationships with Asia,” says Bridget Welsh, an associate professor in political science at Singapore Management University. “But behind the curtain you will have questions of China and U.S. competition with China and issues surrounding the [rebalancing]”
Meanwhile, business leaders representing some of the world’s leading firms at APEC shrugged at Obama’s absence. “I don’t think it will cause a backtrack — it’s unfortunate but he’s obviously dealing with issues at home, but the overriding message is positive,” says Luke Sayers, CEO of consulting firm PwC Australia, in response to a question from TIME. “The conversation outside APEC needs to be sured up first so I don’t think it will be a major problem.”
Others, however, were less enthused. “It depends on what happens next,” says David Michael, senior partner for Boston Consulting Group. “Any opportunity to engage with Asia physically is an important opportunity. So I regret that this distraction has made it impossible for him to be here.”
While desperately trying to remain optimistic, Kerry also warned that regional relationships could be seriously jeopardized if the U.S. president were forced to withdraw from future negotiations. “If [the shutdown] were prolonged, or repeated, people would begin to question the willingness of the U.S. to stay the course and its ability to, but that’s not the case and I don’t think it will be the case,” he said. The world can only hope the the shutdown lasts just a moment.