The US government shutdown has stopped President Barack Obama from attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, which starts over lunch at 0500 GMT.
That has worried US allies at a time when China is on the rise and Washington is trying to push through an ambitious 12-nation trade pact.
Obama’s enforced absence at both APEC and an East Asia summit straight afterwards in Brunei has left the stage clear for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been touring the region and will address a parallel meeting of APEC business leaders on Monday.
According to APEC’s Indonesian hosts, the title of Xi’s speech is “China in transition: what can the Asia-Pacific expect?”
Some expect an economic bonanza. Others, looking nervously at Beijing’s far-reaching territorial claims, expect a more turbulent region and want reassurance from Washington.
But the United States may be ill-equipped to offer much immediate global leadership as it confronts a menace mightier than even the shutdown: the possibility that it might default on its colossal debts unless Congress raises the federal borrowing limit by October 17.
This at a moment when, according to a statement by APEC foreign and trade ministers, the world economy can ill-afford more uncertainty following the 2008 financial crisis.
They said that “global growth is too weak, risks remain tilted to the downside, and the economic outlook suggests growth is likely to be slower and less balanced than desired”.
In a preview of the summit declaration to be released on Tuesday, the ministers stressed their backing for a “comprehensive series of structural reforms so to increase productivity, labour force participation and high-quality job creation”.
For Obama, comprehensive economic reform would include agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by the end of the year. He was meant to throw his presidential weight behind a potentially decisive round of talks among the TPP countries on the APEC sidelines on Tuesday.
But doubts about the TPP are gathering pace, and about Obama’s vaunted “pivot” of foreign policy focus back to Asia.
While expressing sympathy for Obama’s domestic travails, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Sunday that “no other country can replace” US engagement in Asia.