Obama hopes to reaffirm support of Asian allies

President embarks on 4-nation trip to Pacific region

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WASHINGTON -- Two and a half years after President Barack Obama vowed to shift America's diplomatic, economic and military focus to Asia, he will head back to the region this week to try to convince allies and adversaries alike that he really meant it.

Since the much-touted decision to "pivot" to Asia, the Obama administration has found itself repeatedly pulled away by crises in the Middle East, political battles in Washington and, more recently, turmoil in Ukraine.

A key piece of the policy, an ambitious Pacific Rim free-trade pact, has met resistance from the president's own party and bogged down in tariff disputes with Japan. The promised transfer of U.S. warships, Marines and other military resources to the Pacific has been incremental and limited by Pentagon budget cuts.

The result is anxiety among allies, and questions about the U.S. commitment toward establishing a counterweight to China's growing economic clout and military assertiveness.

"In polite company, people won't say it, but behind closed doors I think they'll openly ask where the pivot is," Victor Cha, director for Asian affairs in the George W. Bush administration, said at a recent forum at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Starting Wednesday, Mr. Obama will aim to answer that question at stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. White House advisers say the United States remains locked into plans to bolster its military presence, beef up bilateral relations and regional alliances, and complete the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.

Susan Rice, Mr. Obama's national security adviser, portrayed the president's fifth trip to Asia as crucial to America's future. "We increasingly see our top priorities as tied to Asia, whether it's accessing new markets or promoting exports or protecting our security interests and promoting our core values," she said at a White House briefing Friday. "There's a significant demand for U.S. leadership in that region," she said.

Outside experts don't expect Mr. Obama to make major promises or offer new resources in six days of official dinners, speeches and "cultural visits," including one at the National Mosque in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur. He may not even mention the word "pivot." White House aides now cite a "rebalance," in part because U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East complained that a pivot suggested that they were becoming a lower priority.

The promise to increase U.S. engagement took a hit last fall, when Mr. Obama scrubbed a trip to Asia, and his participation in two regional summits, because of the 16-day federal government shutdown. Since then, Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has rattled nerves in Asia, where some see parallels to China's claims to disputed islands and shoals in the South and East China seas.

"Obama's canceled visit in October, although for good reason, will see him return to a very different circumstance in Asia," said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. "While he will still be greeted with much fanfare, ... the truth is that the region has moved on."

Two key U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea, are bickering over a host of issues, even as they face increased tension with North Korea. The Philippines has locked horns with China, and no one is happy about Malaysia's bungling in the search for Flight 370, which disappeared more than a month ago.

"The good thing is that Chinese actions still cause tensions, and so even if the Americans aren't loved, they seem needed," Mr. Tay said.

Mr. Obama will be careful not to take sides in the territorial disputes or directly antagonize leaders in Beijing. Obama aides have denied that the new U.S. emphasis on Asia is designed to encircle China or restrain its initiatives, but Chinese authorities are suspicious. In the briefing Friday, Ms. Rice denied that the trip, or the policy, "ought to be viewed as a containment of China."

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