So what are the key issues that will influence the U.S. rebalancing to Asia in a second Obama administration?
The first is the inextricable link between the U.S. economy and Asia. A strong U.S. economy is vital to its ability to project power and influence in Asia. The outcome of the ongoing budget talks and potential sequestration cuts will have a direct effect on diplomatic and military resources that can be committed to the region. Moreover, widening the economic lens on Asia from the campaign focus on currency issues with China to how the United States can tap the broader export market across Asia is essential to growing the U.S. economy and creating jobs.
Second, with a new Chinese leadership assuming power this month, there is some question as to the future direction of Beijing's foreign policy. While a radical shift is unlikely, there is some risk that China's economic slowdown will spark additional internal unrest which may tempt the new leadership to tap into nationalistic sentiment on foreign affairs in order to rally popular support for the regime. The new Chinese leadership thus has a balancing act before it, particularly in dealing with its neighbors on contested maritime claims, and in asserting its interests without generating regional instability that could encumber its economy and diminish its strategic position.
Third, the Chinese do not have a monopoly on nationalism. Other countries in the region have experienced outcries of nationalist sentiment in their disputes with China in the South and East China Seas, and also with each other (think Japan and Korea in the Sea of Japan). Given the potential for such disputes to ratchet up tensions and entangle the United States in conflict, the United States should continue to emphasize the importance of resolving these disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.
Fourth, the administration's ability to credibly encourage the resolution of maritime disputes -- a key element of regional stability -- argues for revisiting the ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea in the second term. Doing so would shore up U.S. credibility to push back on expansive maritime claims and preserve critical freedom of navigation and resource exploration rights in the region.
Finally, personalities matter in diplomacy. To the extent that the rebalancing has been successful, it has been propelled by the continued focus and energy of a group of dedicated senior officials who have prioritized showing up consistently in key forums and engaging widely across the region. The administration's next team will need to sustain these efforts.
As the United States emerges from a decade of war in the Middle East and South Asia, President Obama has rightly stated that the United States is at a strategic inflection point: it has an opportunity to shift more of its attention and resources to the region that will drive economic prosperity and security more than any other in the 21st century. Critically important imperatives exist alongside -- such as continued U.S. attention to and leadership in the Middle East, as underscored by the events unfolding in Gaza. Yet President Obama's rebalancing to Asia, while not risk-free and still taking full form, is vital to long-term U.S. interests. The president's ongoing trip is an important continuation of that effort -- one that will have implications not only in his second term but also for administrations to come.