Let’s be clear. Anyone who thinks that President Obama could leave Washington, DC, to travel to Asia for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the midst of a virtual collapse of the U.S. government doesn’t understand the U.S. political system. The president would have been skewered—by the media, by the Republicans, and in private, by his own party. But why not send Vice President Biden?
The vice president is the one person who can effectively stand in for the president, whether at home or abroad. Sending him to Asia in the president’s stead would have stilled the worried voices of our Asian allies and quelled the naysaying voices of our critics. The White House did send U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman and Secretary of State Kerry, but in this case the sum of the parts is less than the whole. USTR Mike Froman is well respected within Asia. His efforts to advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership are Herculean (although some might say Sisyphean), and no one doubts his talent and fortitude. Still, he represents one narrow slice of the U.S. foreign policy pie and is not a realistic stand-in for the president. Secretary Kerry is still earning his Asian stripes. He held a useful set of meetings in early October in Bali, where he reinforced security ties with Australia and Japan. However, early slips, in which he questioned the importance of the pivot to Asia and appeared less committed to Asia than to the Middle East, have not been forgotten within the region.
Vice President Biden would have been the natural and best alternative to President Obama. He has strong foreign policy credentials and a personality that is well suited to the mix of serious diplomacy and equally serious socializing that Asian summits demand. Recent news reports have him eating a sandwich with President Obama, dedicating a hall at the University of Delaware to honor a civil rights activist, and sending congratulations to a ranger who stood up to a Republican congressman. No doubt behind the scenes the vice president is also trying to use his deep ties within Congress to try to make progress in resolving the current political meltdown. However, given the current state of Republican play, a quick trip to Asia is unlikely to have made much difference.
Like my colleague Josh Kurlantzick, I don’t believe—as many media reports have suggested—that the failure of President Obama to travel to Asia has permitted Chinese President Xi Jinping to undo five years of Chinese missteps and two years of strong U.S. initiatives in the region. In part this is because Xi is not taking any positive steps to address what concerns Asian countries most—rising Chinese military assertiveness. And in part, this is because while President Xi touts China’s role as an engine of economic growth, the region’s leaders are fully aware that China runs a trade surplus with a number of their countries. Even as a source of much-needed foreign investment in Asia, the European Union and Japan far outrank either China or the United States.
Yes, the United States missed an opportunity, but the opportunity wasn’t to send President Obama to wave the American flag in Asia, it was to send Vice President Biden. Let’s hope the next time the president needs to be in two places at once, he remembers that his number two is a more than adequate stand-in.