achieve elsewhere, he said.
Fighting in neighboring Syria also shows no sign of abating. Security in Iraq remains fragile, and in Afghanistan, a withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by 2014 leaves it vulnerable to the kind of civil war that blighted the country in the 1990s and led to a Taliban takeover.
Political problems at home could also cramp Obama's outreach to Asia.
His most immediate domestic challenge is an impending showdown over tackling the national debt that economists say could send the world's biggest economy back into recession.
Even before Obama gets to his second inaugural on Jan. 20, he must reach a budget deal with Republicans to prevent a combination of automatic tax increases and steep across- he-board spending cuts – dubbed a “fiscal cliff'' – set to take effect in January. That would entail nearly $500 billion in defense spending cuts over a decade that could undermine plans to devote more military assets to the Asia-Pacific, where the increased capabilities of Chinese forces pose a growing challenge to U.S. pre-eminence in the region.
China is already acting with growing assertiveness in the seas of East Asia.
Its territorial dispute over islands administered by U.S. treaty ally Japan could trigger a military confrontation between Asia's two biggest economies. This year, China has already faced down the Philippines over sovereignty of a reef in the South China Sea, where the competition among China and its neighbors for fish and potential underwater
oil and gas reserves could also sow seeds of conflict.
Two years ago, Clinton announced the U.S. national interest in the peaceful resolution of South China Sea. That step irked Beijing, and managing those diplomatic tensions will be of growing importance in the second term. Washington supports efforts by Southeast Asian nations to negotiate collectively with China on the disputes, but China remains reluctant to play ball.
A strident nationalistic tone in China's state rhetoric in its dispute with Japan has fueled concerns that the Communist Party could increasingly resort to such patriotic appeals if China's juggernaut economy slows and public dissatisfaction with the party grows further.