President Obama won't visit China when he travels to Asia this week, but China will be the 800-pound panda in the room everywhere he goes. This will certainly be the case as he begins his week-long tour in Japan and ends his tour in the Philippines, given China's ongoing and increasingly bitter territorial disputes with both U.S. allies. China will loom large also over Obama's mid-tour visits to South Korea and Malaysia. Obama's mission, in the shadow of China's rising influence and growing assertiveness in the region, is to strengthen America's Pacific alliance and to reassure allies of America's commitment to Asia.
China will also be watching and listening closely as Obama drops in on its neighbors without dropping in on China. China tries hard to project confidence as a rising power no longer subject to U.S. "containment," but obviously sees Obama's "pivot to Asia" as a threat to China's own ambitions for regional dominance. The state-run English weekly Beijing Review has taken a dim view of the trip, saying that "the U.S. president cannot exclude China while attempting to shape Asia's future." China banks on an America stretched thin by commitments elsewhere in the world and weakened by domestic travails, and on fractures among U.S. allies in Asia such as Japan and South Korea. China likes to portray America as a declining power, and is going to great lengths now to point out the "diplomatic tangles" and "uncomfortable bedfellows" Obama will meet when he travels to Asia.
Obama undeniably faces significant challenges in Asia. The crisis in Ukraine has again drawn America's attention away from Asia, worrying America's allies and boosting China's confidence. Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan will also consume America's attention. Partisan gridlock in Washington — including the October 2013 government shutdown that thwarted Obama's last attempt at an Asian trip — may further hinder Obama's efforts and boost China's position. China visibly gloated over the October shutdown, calling for a " de-Americanized world," as Chinese President Xi Jinping hogged the spotlight at Asian summits in Obama's absence. Convincing allies of America's staying power in Asia is therefore of paramount importance.
Obama's visits to Japan and South Korea will also require efforts to mend fractures between these important U.S. allies — fractures China hopes to exploit. While both countries are close U.S. allies, they don't get along well with one another. Japan has been an unhelpful ally with its attempts to whitewash Japanese atrocities during World War II and with visits by high officials including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a Tokyo shrine honoring war dead, including convicted war criminals. Japan's behavior has offended South Korea as much as it has China. Japan and South Korea also have petty territorial disputes of their own that complicate matters for America's Pacific alliance. Obama will have to be the adult in the room with these two allies.
As Obama visits Japan, expect angry noises from China at every expression of U.S.-Japan friendship that wafts from Obama's mouth. As Obama visits South Korea, expect lots of "concern trolling" from China about South Korea's relationship with Japan, and lots of reminders about China's and Korea's shared suffering under Japanese occupation during World War II. North Korea and its rogue nuclear program will also be on the agenda as Obama visits Japan and South Korea. North Korea's unpredictable behavior is a problem for China, but China is also North Korea's protector, even as China seeks closer ties with South Korea — an uncomfortable status quo for China, but one that China seems determined to maintain with as little American interference as possible.
Malaysia and the Philippines both have territorial disputes with China. China claims dominion over virtually the entire South China Sea, including islands also claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam that are much closer to those countries than to China. Tensions between China and the Philippines have been especially sharp, drawing the Philippines into ever closer cooperation with the United States. As Obama visits the Philippines, expect more angry noises from China.
In addition to matters of regional security, Obama's agenda with Asian leaders will include economic ties, particularly talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a 12-nation free trade pact that doesn't currently include China, and which China views as a form of economic containment. China worries a lot about being contained, even as it insists that it " can never be contained," so expect fault-finding from China on this item, too.
China will loom large on Obama's tour of Asia, and China will be watching closely, anxious for any sign of discord or weakness that China may hope to exploit. Obama should return home from Asia with America's allies fully reassured and on improved terms with one another, and with China feeling a little disappointed.