When heads of state started arriving over the weekend, the buzz and focus here at the 2013 APEC Summit was centered on the news that US President Barack Obama decided to stay home.
Well, after all, his government is partially shut down and the main two political parties are not even holding meetings on how to end a fierce battle over the budget.
At an economic summit, when the president of the world’s largest economy cancels, it’s like standing in line at a concert only to hear the lead singer of your favorite band is in bed with a sore throat.
Obama’s move came with mixed reviews. One former Singaporean diplomat told me it was a “disaster” and that it sent an inconsistent signal to America’s partners in the region. As the US has said time and time again they dedicated to ‘rebalancing’ its attention –military and economic might- from the Middle East to Asia.
The Indonesian hosts said they were disappointed Obama was a no-show, but understood. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would have done the same thing.
Secretary of State John Kerry was sent in his place and delivered a speech on Monday that was essentially a sales pitch for the Trans Pacific Partnership – a trade agreement that when negotiated will be the world’s largest. It’s designed to counter China’s trade dominance within the region. The US and Japan want it in place soon.
With Kerry as the stand-in, the keynote speech was given by Chinese President Xi Jinping. He did not mention the absence of his colleague from Washington and –using many a proverb- attempted to reaffirm that China’s economy will continue to grow and that expansion in the region is connected to China. As he put it, “a family of harmony prospers”.
Xi’s keynote comes during a charm offensive in Southeast Asia as his country celebrates a weeklong holiday back home. He looked to reassure the region that they want peace. There was no mention of the territory disputes China has with several of tis neighbours, particularly Japan.
So it appears that the Chinese president was able to turn what local media called “Nobama” into the Xi show.