When President Barack Obama scrubbed an October trip to Asia to attend to the government shutdown in Washington, Asian leaders worried that it meant the United States lacked sufficient interest in the region to remain a powerful presence. This week, Obama will finally make the trip, but it may not be enough to reassure allies and others.
Why not? Two obvious reasons. One is Russia's annexation of Crimea and its aggressive activities in eastern Ukraine, which have focused Washington's attention on how to assure the security of Europe. The fear is that this new threat will divert American attention and resources to the task of bolstering NATO and containing Russia, at the expense of its Pacific role.
Another is that the administration trumpeted its intent to make Asia a higher priority - the Asia pivot - but has repeatedly disappointed. In 2011, reported Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons in the Chicago Tribune, "U.S. foreign policy revolves around a single idea: With U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan coming to a close, Washington is focusing on the fast-growing Pacific region to curb the influence of China." But the world has had a way of preventing any "single idea" from enjoying a monopoly on the U.S. global agenda.
Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have all demanded their share of the spotlight. Ukraine is the latest crisis to preoccupy the president and his advisers. Cuts in the defense budget mean the U.S. will have fewer military assets to bring to bear in the world. So Asian allies figure they're bound to get shortchanged.
That doesn't have to be the case. The U.S. has been the undisputed dominant naval power in Asia since World War II, while China only recently unveiled its first aircraft carrier - a refurbished used vessel with limited capabilities. The defense cuts, if they stick, are likely to come mostly from shrinking the Army, on the assumption that Iraq-style nation building is a thing of the past.
The end of the Iraq engagement and the drawdown in Afghanistan mean that the American military won't have to do more with less but less with less. Some of the resources - financial, military and diplomatic - that once poured into those two countries can now be devoted to Asia as well as Europe.
The U.S. has proven in the past that it's capable of addressing dangers in both places. The Pacific alliances were established in the same era that NATO came into being. We fought wars in Korea and Vietnam while facing down the Soviet threat in Europe. We're a global power, with the means to act in more than one place at a time.
The events in Ukraine don't diminish the importance of maintaining peace and stability in Asia; they underline it. Nor does Washington's failure to use military force in this instance mean it would react similarly if China attacked one of our many Asian allies. We had no treaty commitment to protect Ukraine - but we do with many of China's neighbors. Beijing's aggressive posture, meanwhile, has pushed its neighbors toward more cooperation with Washington.
Nor is security the only item on the board. The administration also recognizes the importance of commerce with a region that accounts for 40 percent of the global economy. Negotiations are going on for a trade agreement with the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker says more than a quarter of her foreign commercial services officers are in Asia, more than in any other part of the world.
None of the administration's challenges are easy. Hammering out a good trade accord is anything but a sure thing. Countering a stronger and more assertive China will be tricky. North Korea remains the wildest of wild cards. There are limits to the time and energy of American policymakers, who are obliged to respond to immediate emergencies even when they have equally vital long-term work elsewhere.
But those realities are just part of life in a turbulent and perilous world. The United States didn't become the world's only superpower without developing a capacity for coping with multiple challenges at once. It's Obama's task to convince Asians that our capacity and resolve are undiminished.