Not even the sharpest media spin can spare the United States from criticism making the rounds in East Asia over President Barack Obama's inability to show up for the Asean-led summit season this past week. The contrast could not be clearer. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang stand out as China's tag team at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali and later the East Asia Summit in Brunei, which chairs Asean this year.
Yet the US-China rivalry for influence and competing interests in Southeast Asia is nuanced and not zero-sum. It is a mistake to read too much into Mr Obama's absence this time.
Timing and expectations are partly culpable for the criticisms that have been levelled at the Obama administration. In the first year of his first term, Mr Obama had raised many hopes and anticipation in Asia by declaring himself America's "first Pacific president" in view of his Asia-Pacific upbringing. With adept representation by former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Mr Obama later put his deeds where his rhetoric had been, coming up with America's much-touted "pivot" to Asia, also known as a strategy of "rebalance".