Political Chicken and Economic Checkers

The continuing federal government shutdown and looming debt crisis kept President Obama from attending critical Asia-Pacific trade meetings and perhaps signaled the United States is a less reliable partner than China.The empty American chair at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Indonesia speaks of significant external damage wreaked by the continuing federal government shutdown and debt ceiling showdown.

Even though Secretary of State John Kerry replaced President Obama, the absence of our top gun was unmistakable. It left China to dominate this stage and set many Pacific Rim officials to wondering about the financial and political reliability of the United States.

While U.S. politicians bicker over universal health care and domestic spending levels, Asia-Pacific leaders at the meeting talked about the pain of the global economic crisis and the ambitions of the region to become the world's economic engine. They were talking about job creation on a hemispheric scale. 

Before he canceled his trip to remain in Washington while the government was shut down and a fiscal crisis loomed over the debt ceiling, Obama planned on touting a Trans-Pacific Partnership, which The New York Times described as "a trade bloc led by the United States and excluding China." Complex negotiations were to be completed by the end of the year, the newspaper said.

The partnership is intended to address "all economic sectors from intellectual property protection to agriculture to automobiles," The Times reported. It is part of the Obama "Pacific pivot" to focus more energy on building stronger ties in a region with huge potential for economic growth.

The goal at the Bali meeting was to jumpstart negotiations, with South Korean President Park Geun-hye poised to announce she would join the negotiations. With Obama absent, Park declined to make an announcement. Malaysia, which already committed to the negotiations, said it is unlikely to meet the year-end deadline. A Filipino official openly questioned whether countries in the Pacific Rim can continue to count on the United States.

And host Indonesia, which has resisted Chinese economic overtures in the past, announced China is opening a $50 billion infrastructure bank to service the region. One Indonesian official said the United States is "playing checkers while the Chinese play chess."

Officials in other parts of the world were even less courteous, saying the United States is playing political chicken with its international reputation. A European diplomat said the United States was going from an economic stalwart to an unstable government in the image of Italy as we squabble over universal health care coverage and spending levels.

Are we missing the bigger picture by focusing on the political leverage being exerted by a political minority? And if we are, will the price we wind up paying by much higher than the immediate damage to our national and local economies?