04/10/2014 12:30 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2014

Asia Has 'Pivoted' -- To Itself

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- When President Barack Obama heads to Asia later this month, he's not scheduled to visit Vietnam. But the investors in the Rex Hotel here, who want America to do more business in Vietnam, will watch for signs that his much-advertised "pivot to Asia" is real.

Like many people here, they are addicted to coffee and free Wi-Fi. Both, plus good air conditioning, are available in the Rex lobby in the heart of this river-laced metropolis.

Which is why the deans of the city's small, indigenous financial industry spend much of the day there with laptops open at long wood tables in the Paradise Coffee Lounge. They gaze at rows of market numbers as they down cups of coffee and juggle calls on multiple cell phones.

"You are looking at the top local people in finance here," said Michael Rosen, an Asia expert and investor who runs a new fund out of Ho Chi Minh City these days.

Colonel Sanders -- not Ho Chi Minh -- is the ubiquitous white-haired bearded gentleman on signs in the center of the city. But the advertising is deceiving. The U.S. is far behind on the serious investment action here, Rosen said. Japan, South Korea and EU countries lead the way.

As for the Chinese, the Vietnamese would rather not take their money. They are feared ancient rivals, the Big Brother of the North. But the sheer amount and urgency of investment cash is hard to resist, especially absent a strong U.S. counterweight.

"The Chinese are busy everywhere," said Rosen. "There is still time for the U.S., but there is a lot of catching up to do."

"Catching up," in fact, is my bottom line after a three-week trip through Southeast Asia: Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

As China continues its rise, the region is busy reacting, adapting and looking for Asian alliances and opportunities. The president's "pivot" is important, but feels almost after the fact.

The U.S. has more than enough naval and military might to be a lead if not controlling player in the seas of Asia for years. We remain the banker of last resort for the planet.

But today's geopolitics are based on global trade, and America's relative economic clout in the region is diminishing. Obama is proposing to be the Metternich of Asia, balancing China against its neighbors, but he may not have the economic ammo to do it.

While America was busy elsewhere, Asia pivoted to itself.

Hong Kong is the most obvious example.

Some vestiges of the British era, from 1841 to 1997, remain, but they are fading as fast as the Queen Elizabeth II trophy plate in the display case at the Hong Kong Jockey Club racetrack.

American movies and fashion have long since replaced the British: a giant Spider-Man graces a main square; the sneakers, jeggings, and shaggy buzz cuts are as L.A. as you can get.

But this is Western foam on a sea with a deep Eastern current.

Vice President Joe Biden met recently with democracy advocates who cherish the idea of a distinctive, largely independent Hong Kong, despite Britain's "handover" to China in 1997.

The Chinese complained loudly about the Biden meeting, but that was just noise. Their time horizon is in millennia. So they are moving very patiently to pull Hong Kong inch by inch into the full embrace of the Chinese mainland.

English is still taught in the public schools, but mostly as a language class and no longer in subject classes such as history or geography. Instead, Hong Kong students now study Mandarin along with their local Cantonese. Older locals say that their English is far better than their children's.

Hong Kong's famously global banks are increasingly investing in mainland-China projects, to the point where local bank regulators worry aloud about what an economic downturn in China would do to Hong Kong's bank balance sheets.

As on the mainland, elite students -- and students from elite families -- clamor to enroll in Ivy League schools. (One Hong Kong prep school took out a front-page newspaper ad to crow about its Ivy admission rate.) But the aims are family prestige and connections at home, not a life in America, or even, necessarily, an interest in American ideas.

Under the terms of the "handover," China has what amounts to veto power over the list of candidates who vie for top elected jobs in Hong Kong. Officials from the People's Republic have made it clear that whomever is elected must adhere to the slogan, "Love the country; love Hong Kong."

In that order.

Most observers would say that China had every right to the return of Hong Kong, and its full integration into the homeland.

China's role elsewhere in Southeast Asia is more complicated. Echoes of history can be heard all across the region.

South China's cultural influence was and is vast. One example: the age-old South China sea goddess, known as Tin Hau in myriad temples dedicated to her in Hong Kong. She can be seen, and prayed to, in one form or another in temples -- including Buddhist ones -- from Singapore to central Vietnam.

At one time or another, the Chinese conquered or occupied much of the territory from the eastern border of Thailand to the northern border of Vietnam. You can see the Chinese warriors, recognizable by their beards, on the sandstone bas-reliefs in Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Cambodia.

Elsewhere, the Chinese business diaspora, itself hundreds and sometimes thousands of years old, is reviving.

In Singapore, an important transit point today for Chinese money, the Chinese community led the way in restoring an ancient sea goddess temple in the heart of the business district. The lavish restoration project fairly shouts "cash."

History is repeating itself, not in war but in commerce and a vigorous investment strategy that varies from near-stealth to shock-and-awe. China is forging bonds where relations are good, or where the locals would rather deal with China than a more disliked nearby rival.

In Cambodia, the Chinese are exploiting the locals' dislike of the Vietnamese to do deals in gold mining and timbering, among other sectors.

"The Vietnamese and the Chinese are competing with each other to see who can take more resources out of Vietnam," a businessman in the town of Siem Riep told me.

Vietnam is the real prize in the region. Its lush agriculture, energy riches, picturesque terrain and industrious, friendly people continue to make the country a top target for investment -- and potentially a key political partner.

So far, the Vietnamese have preferred the Japanese and the South Koreans.

Huge infrastructure projects, such as tunnels, bridges and a new subway system for the city, tend to be handled by the Japanese, while the South Koreans have built their own suburban enclaves for their fleets of executives.

In the central Vietnam coastal city of Da Nang, once a key staging area for the U.S. military, seaside mansions are walled off from the trash-strewn, thatched-roofed homes of the poor. The mansions are an easy Maserati ride away from the top-shelf Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie golf courses favored by Japanese and South Koreans, who pay a fraction of the greens fees charged at home.

So far, there hasn't been as much golf for China or the U.S. Both are hampered by history.

China's burden is a nearly millennium-long occupation of Vietnam, from 111 B.C. to 938 A.D., with another invasion during the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century. These are not forgotten episodes -- they are basic dates in Vietnamese history. (In museum display cases, the Vietnamese are depicted as funky guerrillas in small boats, the Chinese as overbearing lords in overbuilt, unwieldy junks.)

Paradoxically, today's diligent schoolkids in Vietnam, a young country demographically, may know more about those ancient times than about the "American War." In casual conversations in Ho Chi Minh City and elsewhere, that topic doesn't arise unless an American brings it up.

But there are still political risks in moving too quickly in Washington's direction. The U.S. can get preachy about human rights, a lecture few Vietnamese want to hear from a nation that dropped napalm on their countrymen.

Still, there are deals to be made, and it is probably time to do so before the sheer weight of China makes them impossible. Leaders of the Vietnamese Communist party may know it.

"If the leaders of our country get too close to America, they can lose the party," a tourism executive told me in Saigon. "But if they get too close to China, they can lose the country."