BEIJING – President Obama leaves Tuesday for Asia but is skipping the regional giant here that is scaring its neighbors to reassure allies of the American commitment to their security.
Obama plans a four nation, eight-day trip in which he will dine with the Japanese emperor, return some ancient seals to South Korea, tour a giant mosque in Malaysia and speak to American troops in the Philippines.
He won't visit China, but Beijing's growing influence, and increasingly muscular attitude toward its neighbors, will shadow Obama throughout his trip.
The White House has stressed the economic benefits of closer U.S. ties with the region. The United States seeks progress on the long-delayed Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, but security concerns are likely to dominate amid China's demands that it owns the entire South China Sea and belligerent moves by North Korea.
Japan, where he will arrive Wednesday, offers an immediate and stiff diplomatic challenge that carries risks of offending Beijing. In one of several maritime territorial disputes between China and other Asian countries, Japan and China contest ownership of the tiny, Japan-administered Senkaku islands.
Washington criticized Beijing for raising tensions but does not take a formal position on this or the other disputed claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, saying they need to be worked out in negotiations among the nations.
Japan expects historic results from the first state visit by a U.S. president since Bill Clinton's 18 years ago, said Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime security specialist at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.
Back then, "the main purpose was to redefine the alliance after the Cold War," he said.
"Now it's time to redefine our strategic direction in the first half of the 21st century. The rise of China is the No.1 challenge for Japan and the United States," Kotani said.
Kotani expects a renewed commitment to the alliance and emphasis on international law in peacefully resolving disputes, though nothing that directly refers to China.
In South Korea, Obama will return some ancient seals taken by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War, said Seoul's Chosun Ilbo newspaper. He will give little else save for a "stereotype confirmation of U.S. commitment to South Korea's defense," predicted Tong Kim, an international relations expert at Seoul's Korea University.
Obama will call for Seoul and Tokyo to improve frosty relations, Kim said.
Kim said the president is more interested in China than North Korea. The U.S. government does not consider North Korea "a direct threat to the security of the United States," he said. "He's under no pressure from the U.S. public to deal with the North Korean regime."
Air Force One will fly Saturday over the vast South China Sea whose fishing and energy resources China claims even though many of the sea's islands are far closer to other countries.
In Malaysia, which has been far less outspoken about China's claims than Vietnam and the Philippines, there are questions "about how China will behave towards its smaller regional neighbors," said Elina Noor, a U.S.-Malaysia expert at Kuala Lumpur's Institute of Strategic and International Studies.
Noor said Obama's visit in Malaysia "will largely be symbolic rather than substantive," making little progress on the Pan-Pacific trade deal. But the trip remains significant, given that no sitting U.S. president has visited Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966.
"As elsewhere in Asia, symbolism matters in highlighting the value of the bilateral relationship," especially for Malaysia since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and amid the evolving, regional dynamics, she said. China has been highly critical of Malaysia's handling of the case of the missing jet, which vanished March 8 with many Chinese passengers on board.
Obama will end his fifth official trip to Asia with his first visit to the Philippines.
"Basically, this is a long overdue trip," said Richard Javad Heydarian, a lecturer in international affairs at Ateneo De Manila University.
Obama says his administration is "pivoting" U.S. military resources to the region to better secure it.
"Many are saying, 'Where is the US pivot to Asia?' And the sense of insecurity is strongest in the Philippines," whose minimal navy has been harassed by Chinese boats "getting more aggressive in territorial posturing," Heydarian said.
Obama shows "perfect timing," Heydarian said, as Manila has made history by taking its maritime claims against China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
The Philippines is "the first ever [nation] to formally and legally challenge China's 'nine-dash line doctrine,' " the looping swath China draws on Asia maps to define its territorial claims, he said.
Manila hopes Obama's visit concludes with a new security pact and "at least a rhetorical commitment from Obama that the United States will come to the rescue of the Philippines in event of conflict," Heydarian said.