Chinese President Xi Jinping met Malaysia's leaders today as part of a Southeast Asia charm offensive ahead of key regional summits, with analysts saying he "had the floor to himself" after Barack Obama scrapped his Asia tour.
Xi's visit to Malaysia and an earlier stop in Indonesia have taken on added significance with the White House's announcement that the US president had cancelled plans to visit the region to focus on a budget impasse in Washington.
During Xi's stay, Malaysia and China plan to sign a five-year programme for further economic and trade cooperation, after similar pledges were made during Xi's stop in Indonesia.
With Beijing and Washington vying for influence in the strategic region, Obama had planned to get face time with regional leaders and rub shoulders with Xi at an Asia-Pacific summit in Bali next week.
Obama will also Brunei and the Philippines.
The White House has announced Obama will send US Secretary of State John Kerry in his place so he can stay at home to focus on a budget gridlock in Washington that triggered the first government shutdown in 17 years.
Analysts said the developments may deal a potential blow to the Obama administration's stated intention to concentrate more on Asia, where unease is rising over China's growing might.
"Now, Xi has the floor to himself and it makes the US, its political system and democracy 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."
Xi is making his first trip to Southeast Asia since he took over China's helm in March. The journey will culminate in his inaugural appearance at the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) bloc in Indonesia on Monday and Tuesday.
Premier Li Keqiang will represent China at an East Asia summit in Brunei on the following two days. Obama also had been scheduled to attend the Brunei summit.
Xi's Southeast Asian trip underscores growing Chinese economic influence in a region wary of his country's territorial ambitions.
Some countries in the 10-member Asean have expressed increasing alarm over Beijing's assertive claims to water and islands in the South China Sea.
In Indonesia, Xi told Indonesia's parliament that territorial disputes should be resolved in a "peaceful manner".
"China is ready to increase maritime cooperation with Asean," said Xi, while offering no new proposals.
China-Malaysia bilateral trade has grown tenfold since 2002 to top more than US$94 billion (RM300.7 billion) last year.
China is now Malaysia's biggest trading partner, having overtaken the United States in recent years. – AFP, October 4, 2013.
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