China's Xi courts Malaysia in regional charm offensive
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (R) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping after a press conference in Malaysia on October 4, 2013
Xi's visits to Indonesia and Malaysia and his scheduled attendance at a regional summit next week have taken on added significance with the US president's decision to stay put due to the budget impasse in Washington.
Some Southeast Asian countries have accused Beijing of increasingly aggressive behaviour in asserting its claims to waters and islands in the South China Sea.
But Xi, addressing reporters after meeting Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, said China was committed to closer cooperation with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
"China will continue to provide firm support to the central role of ASEAN in East Asian cooperation and we will be happy to see a greater role played by Malaysia in this region," Xi said in a joint press appearance with his host.
With Beijing and Washington vying for influence in the strategic region, Obama had planned to get face time with Asian leaders and rub shoulders with Xi at an international summit in Bali next week.
Obama had also planned to visit Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Instead, US Secretary of State John Kerry will take his place so that Obama can focus on the budget gridlock that triggered the first government shutdown in 17 years.
Analysts said the developments deal a potential blow to the Obama administration's "pivot" policy -- the refocusing of its economic and strategic attention on Asia.
Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Obama's decision "could signal the start of the unravelling of the US pivot to Asia".
Charles Morrison, president of the Honolulu-based East-West Center, told AFP the episode raised questions over whether the US "can sustain a leadership position".
"Obama's trip cancellation reduces the visibility of the American role in Asia," he said.
A Brunei foreign ministry official said Friday the move was "disappointing".
"Not just for those in diplomatic circles, but for a small country to host the president of the United States is a source of excitement, particularly someone of Obama's celebrity," said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Xi is on his first trip to Southeast Asia since he took China's helm in March. The journey will culminate in his inaugural appearance at the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation bloc in Indonesia on Monday and Tuesday.
Premier Li Keqiang will then represent China at an East Asia summit in Brunei on the following two days. Obama had originally planned to attend both gatherings.
Xi now "has the floor to himself", while the US budget debacle has made the US look "weak", said Ian Storey of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
"Meanwhile China looks flush with cash and full of confidence and it is relatively stable at home."
Despite tensions over maritime claims, Xi's trip has served to stress the crucial importance of economic ties with China.
Xi and Najib agreed to work on increasing bilateral trade to $160 billion by 2017, from $94 billion last year. China is now Malaysia's biggest trading partner, recently overtaking the United States.
The two leaders later oversaw the signing of a five-year commitment to strengthen economic and trade cooperation, after similar pledges were made during Xi's earlier stop in Indonesia.
Among other agreements, Malaysia's AirAsia and the leasing arm of Chinese banking giant ICBC signed an aircraft-financing commitment worth $1 billion.
AirAsia called it the "largest financial cooperation" ever between the two countries.
In Indonesia, Xi told parliament territorial disputes should be resolved in a "peaceful manner", but he has offered no new proposals on the trip.
China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan all have claims -- some overlapping -- to the resource-rich South China Sea, which analysts consider one of the world's potential flashpoints.
China agreed this year to discuss with ASEAN an eventual binding Code of Conduct in the sea to prevent accidental conflict.
Analysts say, however, that Beijing will never back down on territorial claims that include virtually all of the strategic waterway, and that tensions are likely to simmer despite the effort at dialogue.
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