THE BLOG
10/21/2014 01:15 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2014

Obama's Troublesome Distractions Won't Wreck His Asia-Pacific Pivot (But Not Because of Him)

These are not good times for President Barack Obama, and they're apt to get worse before they get better. But one good thing for the president is that his Asia-Pacific Pivot -- heightened engagement with the rising region, and nascent superpower China -- hasn't been wrecked by the lengthening array of Obama administration distractions, including his troubled and tardy war against Isis.

That the Obama administration has little to do with it doesn't matter much. In politics, one takes good fortune where one finds it, especially when it's a result of another's misfortune.

In this case, the bad fortune is that of China. Though the administration is loath to admit the obvious, one of the principal reasons for the Pivot is to help its worried neighbors contain an aggressive China, which is pouring money into military and naval expansion, stunningly claiming sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, and seeking to greatly expand its reach over the East China Sea. Even as America's bandwidth is stretched by dubious distractions elsewhere, from Syria to Ukraine, China's neighbors continue to resist its expansionism. Vietnam and the Philippines continue to be at loggerheads with Beijing over its claims off their shores. Japan turned the People's Republic's declared air defense zone over the East China Sea into a joke and continues to resist Chinese efforts in the Senkaku Islands, though it has agreed to dialogue to clear the path to a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Now China's own internal contradictions are coming into play, in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Two critical pieces of the empire, both outlying and outliers yet central to China's future moves, are extraordinarily restive. And despite Beijing's forceful efforts to tamp down the unrest, it's not going away.

In Hong Kong, the "Umbrella Revolution" protest continues, driven by Beijing's insistence on reneging on the promise of democratic elections in 2017. There will be elections, all right, but only with candidates approved in Beijing.

In the vast Xinjiang region, the resistance is violent as it has been on and off for years. Hundreds have been killed in terrorist attacks against Beijing's rule this year, with a major bombing just in the past few days.

Hong Kong, one of my favorite cities -- electric, dynamic, entrepreneurial, and free-spirited -- before the Chinese takeover from Britain in 1997, and Xinjiang have little in common besides their resistance to Beijing and importance to Beijing. Hong Kong is a key enclave of finance and innovation. It's filled with educated ethnic Chinese who look to the West even as their practice their own unique form of fusion Chinese culture.

Xinjiang is an energy colony, multi-ethnic and largely Islamic, filled with Uighurs, the largest ethnic group there, and others still unhappy about being annexed by Imperial China centuries ago. Mountainous, remote, close to Central Asia. I was detained by rather paranoid Chinese security troops when I backpacked there along Silk Road routes as a grad student decades ago. Even then the potential for major unrest was clear.

New Chinese President Xi can ill afford these major distractions as he pursues his "Chinese Dream" of national rejuvenation and glory. Xi has centralized power further, pursuing corruption cases against potential rival power and continuing heavy censorship, and is looking to inject some new dynamism into an economy which is slowing even as it moves inexorably toward becoming the world's largest.

His aggressive maritime strategy is in character for an aggressive would-be superpower. But it is out of character for China. Despite the greatness of Chinese culture, China wasn't much for exploration. Indeed, its one famed set of maritime expeditions, back in the early 1400s, was not about exploration but about demonstrating the greatness of China to those not fortunate enough to be Chinese. With that done, and with the court eunuchs behind the "treasure voyages" losing an imperial power struggle, the ships came home, leaving world exploration to Portugal, Spain, France, and Britain.

With growing and potentially major problems at home, does China really want to risk a war in a domain in which it has no tradition of success, well before it's anywhere near ready, no matter how distracted the U.S. appears to be?

There are still signs that engagement can work.

Secretary of State John Kerry entertained State Councillor Yang Jiechi last week at home in Boston before going on another Asia-Pacific tour.

Governor Jerry Brown, crushing hapless Republican opposition in his drive for a record fourth term governor of the nation's largest state, held his own parallel summit with Xi last year when Obama and Xi met in California. He continues to offer big economic opportunities in the Golden State and a model for promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency and cutting greenhouse gases and other pollution for a nation whose citizens are increasingly upset about terrible pollution.

It's a big world and there are plenty of opportunities for great powers to exhibit leadership.

And still opportunity for Barack Obama, despite his long patch of rough water.

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