11/29/2012 03:21 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

Amid Pitfalls and Prospects, "Asian Pivot" Requires Nuanced Approach

President Obama's effort to pivot America's foreign policy to Asia -- as highlighted by his selection of Southeast Asia for his first foreign trip since his reelection -- offers not only ample economic opportunities but also many foreign policy pitfalls.

Several realities have emerged that U.S. leaders must consider when crafting effective foreign policy toward the region.

1. China Sea disputes are dividing the region. Relationships among neighbors in Asia are becoming increasingly tense due to disputed claims of sovereignty over the seas. China's claim to nearly all of the South China Sea has caused friction with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. China's claim of sovereignty over areas of the East China Sea currently occupied by Japan also has increased tensions. At stake in these sea disputes are vital economic interests, including vast oil and gas reserves, significant fish stocks, and vital trade routes -- as well as national pride.

2. Cambodia complicates ASEAN. While the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had potential to offer a forum for developing a unified approach to engaging China on South China Sea disputes, the group is unlikely to actually do so. ASEAN's tradition of acting only with consensus, combined with China's successful efforts to enlist Cambodia as its surrogate, has effectively halted joint-ASEAN action on these issues. ASEAN's impotency in these matters is reflected in its inability to reach consensus on sea disputes for the second summit in a row.

3. Energy security still matters. While America's reliance on the Gulf as a source of energy will decline with the United State's shale oil and gas boom, guaranteeing that energy supply routes in the Middle East and Southeast Asia will continue to be essential. A key component of American influence in Asia is our role in ensuring safe passage of energy supplies for all countries. The global supply chains upon which the United States relies in turn rely on the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca remaining safe and secure.

4. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) offers great potential. Few actions will have a bigger impact on the prosperity of our children than whether or not a Pacific trade agreement (including the United States, like the TPP) or an Asian trade agreement (excluding the United States) is reached. President Obama should make every effort to follow through on his support for the TPP. China should be welcomed into the TPP if it adheres to the partnership's higher standards. This important agreement can serve to spur economic growth and cooperation while giving China an incentive to further reduce barriers to economic openness.

5. Centrality of China demands nuanced approach. How America gets along with China in the years ahead will be a key variable for global stability. Developing effective Chinese relations will be complicated by the fact that the underpinning of our relationship with most other Asian countries is that we provide a counterweight to China. For its part, China has taken several recent steps to reduce America's ability to effectively provide such a counterweight. These actions include China launching a blue water navy, developing carrier-sinking missiles, and cultivating surrogates including Cambodia.

The United States will need a nuanced "Asian Pivot" approach that combines strengthening our relationships with traditional allies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand, with expanding relationships with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam -- all the while, seeking every opportunity to collaborate with China and diffuse tensions.

Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).