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Kerry calls government shutdown a brief disruption

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) talks with Robert Wang (R), the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in China, during the Asia Pacific Econom
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) talks with Robert Wang (R), the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in China, during the Asia Pacific Econom

By Lesley Wroughton

NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - The partial shutdown of the U.S. government, which entered its fifth day on Saturday, is a "momentary episode" and does not change the U.S. commitment to Asia or elsewhere, Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Kerry is acting as stand-in for President Barack Obama who canceled a tour of Asia, including a visit to the Indonesian resort island of Bali for a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders, because of the stalemate in Washington.

"Do not mistake this momentary episode in American politics as anything more than a moment of politics. This is an example of the robustness of our democracy," Kerry said. But he added that if the shutdown were prolonged or repeated, people would question the U.S. ability to "stay the course."

In his meetings with foreign leaders in Bali, Kerry said he encountered an understanding of the problems in Washington.

"In the end nothing will change with respect to the issues that bring us here, nothing will diminish our commitment to Asia, we will continue to fulfill our responsibilities and our engagement around the world and I think people are confident of that," he said.

"Everybody in the region understands ... everyone sees this as a moment in politics, an unfortunate moment, but they see it for what it is," said Kerry, a former U.S. senator and U.S. presidential candidate.

The political standoff over the U.S. budget has shut down non-essential government services and appeared likely to drag on for another week or longer. Another crisis looms in two weeks when lawmakers must decide whether to increase the U.S. government's $16.7 trillion debt borrowing limit.

While Kerry dismissed any long-term impact from the shutdown, he said it would however delay payments for security assistance to Israel and funding support for a U.S.-led peacekeeping mission in the Sinai peninsula, which divides Egypt and Israel.

He said the U.S. Treasury department that oversees sanctions against Iran had been forced to furlough nearly all of its staff during the shutdown. This, he said, was coming at a time when the United States was trying to reengage with Tehran to find a solution to a longstanding dispute over Iran's nuclear weapons program.

"I think it's clear we cannot lose this opportunity to moments of politics, that deprive us of the opportunity to embrace larger and more important goals," Kerry said of potential talks with Iran.

Obama had planned to leave on Saturday for a four-nation, week-long trip. He canceled visits to Malaysia and the Philippines earlier this week because of his budget struggle in the U.S. Congress and said late on Thursday he would not attend the regional summits in Indonesia and Brunei.

Kerry dismissed suggestions that the United States' interests in the region were weakened by Obama's absence at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

He said, however, that Obama's absence undermined the president's ability to have one-on-one conversations about global affairs with leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Two of Obama's main aims would have been to discuss the Syria crisis with Putin and to hold talks on a maritime code of conduct for disputed territories in the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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