US President Barack Obama’s first overseas tour after his reelection helps spotlight Asia’s new centrality to American economy and security. But his Asian tour also raises the issue whether his administration’s “pivot” toward Asia will acquire concrete strategic content or remain largely a rhetorical repackaging of policies begun over the past decade.  

In recent years, the U.S. has made the most of the regional concerns over China’s increasingly muscular approach by strengthening its military ties with existing Asian allies and forging security relationships with new friends. The heady glow of America’s return to the Asian center-stage, however, has obscured the key challenges it faces to remain the region’s principal security anchor in the face of China’s relentless push to expand its sphere of influence.

One challenge is connected with the imperative to arrest the erosion in America’s relative power through comprehensive domestic renewal, including by reining in its mounting budget deficit. The need for spending cuts raises the specter that the U.S., especially if its Congress cannot agree on a fiscal deal, might be unable to fund a military shift toward Asia or, worse, be forced to retrench on its assets in the Asia-Pacific.

Under Obama, the U.S. has increasingly ceded more ground to China, a trend that admittedly began as the Bush administration became preoccupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has spurred doubts about Washington’s ability to provide strategic heft to its “pivot” policy by sustaining a higher level of commitment in the Asia-Pacific, where it already maintains 320,000 troops. The proposed deployment of 2,500 Marines in Australia is largely symbolic.

In fact, Washington, after appearing to raise Asian expectations about a more-robust U.S. response to China’s growing assertiveness, has started to tamp down the military aspects of its “pivot” and instead lay emphasis on greater U.S. economic engagement with Asian countries. The renewed emphasis on the economic aspects has come as a relief to some regional states apprehensive about being caught in a situation where they might be forced to choose between the U.S. and China. But for the countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies on territorial or maritime disputes, this emphasis raises new doubts about the U.S. commitment.

The economic reorientation actually signals a correction in a “pivot” policy that began overemphasizing the military component, putting Washington on an uncomfortable path of seeking to take on Beijing. It was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who signaled a more hawkish U.S. stance on China by talking tough at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi but who now is moderating that line by playing the role of a business promoter in visits to Asian countries.

Obama, visiting Thailand, Myanmar  and Cambodia, himself is highlighting the economic aspects of the “pivot” policy by portraying his Asia tour as being about generating more manufacturing jobs at home through greater exports to “the most rapidly growing and dynamic region in the world.” But his historic visit to Myanmar — the first ever by a U.S. president — is as much about trade as it is about the geopolitical objective of weaning that strategically located, resource-rich country away from Chinese influence. Paradoxically, it was the U.S. sanctions policy that penalized Myanmar but condoned China for crushing prodemocracy protests in 1988 and 1989, respectively, that helped push the former into the latter’s strategic lap.

The refocus on trade and economic issues has also prompted Washington to launch the Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative, which aims to create a new free trade group in the Asia-Pacific that excludes China. Washington is also emphasizing the importance of the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose summit overlaps with the EAS meeting in Phnom Penh that Obama will be attending.

The U.S. course correction is being dictated by yet another factor: It is not in America’s interest to take sides in bilateral disputes between China and its neighbors — unless, of course, U.S. interests are directly at stake, as in the South China Sea over freedom of navigation.

Washington, for example, has charted a course of tacit neutrality on the recrudescence of Sino-Indian territorial disputes, including Beijing’s sudden resurrection of a claim to the large Himalayan Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Similarly, Washington has urged both Beijing and Tokyo to peacefully resolve their dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands. U.S. policy seeks to ensure that the Sino-Japanese standoff does not escalate to a level where Washington may be forced — against its own interests — to take Japan’s side.

When U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in September, he got “an earful” that the United States should stay out of the China-Japan dispute. Indeed, amid the orchestrated anti-Japanese protests in China in September, Panetta — instead of advising Beijing to rein in the often-violent demonstrations — publicly reiterated that the U.S. does not take sides in the dispute over the control of the islands.

The correction in the U.S. policy actually extends even to terminology, with the original term “pivot” being dumped in favor of “rebalancing.” U.S. diplomats now avoid using the “pivot” term because it is seen as having a military ring to it.

Whatever it may be called, the new policy approach is all about China, with Washington bolstering alliances and friendships with states around China’s periphery, including India, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and South Korea. Yet the Obama administration continues to deny the “pivot” policy is about China and is reluctant to publicly say or do anything that might raise Beijing’s hackles.

Asia will loom larger in Obama’s second-term agenda, especially as the ongoing troop drawdown ends the Afghan war by 2014. Obama will have to define a clearer U.S. policy on Asia. At the heart of his challenge is the rapid rise of China under a centrally coordinated authoritarian regime that aggressively pursues border claims and whips up nationalism at home. The U.S. and the rest of Asia must not merely adjust to the rise of China but seek to shape a China that plays by the rules and stays on the positive side of the ledger.

The writer is a geostrategist.