The giant panda in the room on Obama's Asian tour
The U.S president is everywhere but China, but Beijing is what's on everyone's mind
U.S. President Barack Obama's Asian tour got off to a good start this week with one enviable achievement beyond the reach of a lesser statesman — getting a seat at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the tiny restaurant run by Tokyo's legendary sushi chef Jiro Ono.
In terms of concrete results, that may be the high point of the trip.
In the three years since Obama announced the American "pivot" towards Asia — a strategic shift designed to address the region's growing importance — his administration's signature foreign policy has yet to take firm shape.
The pivot is supposed to be underpinned by a still secret, 12-country free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (an arrangement Canada clambered to join).
But Obama had to admit his meetings in Japan ended in failure, because the Japanese government was afraid to sign on at this point and offend the powerful farm lobby.
The almost eight-day tour takes Obama from Japan to, now, South Korea and on to Malaysia and the Philippines. In all four countries, the key item on the agenda is the country he's not going to: China.
Far from being ignored, the giant panda in the room is the main topic of conversation.
And Obama's challenge is to avoid giving offence to Beijing as he reassures America's Asian allies that they can count on U.S. support if their toes are trodden upon by their giant neighbour.
But is China miffed?
In Japan, Obama stepped further into the highly-charged dispute over a group of rocky islets called the Senkaku Islands by Japan, the Diaoyus by China.
He stated clearly for the first time that Washington considers those islands to be covered by the defence treaty between the U.S. and Japan.
It was a clear warning to Beijing that if the naval jousting in the South China Sea gets out of hand, it could be picking a fight not only with Japan, but also with the U.S.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed its opposition to the application of the U.S.-Japan treaty to the islands.
But at the same time, China has not made a big issue of the fact that Obama is touring the neighbourhood even though he has not been to China since 2009.
The Global Times, the English language paper published by the Peoples Daily that often voices strong nationalist views in a curiously petulant tone, was dismissive: "Japan should know that China actually pays little attention to Obama's visit, and we are not jealous because Obama won't visit China this time."
In fact, despite their conflicting interests in Asia, and Chinese resentment over Washington's expanding role in the region, the U.S. and China are getting along reasonably well at the moment.
Michelle Obama and the presidential daughters took Chinese public opinion by storm when they visited in March. U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel also paid a visit to China, just before the president set off for Japan.
Aircraft carrier diplomacy
In fact, Hagel was invited aboard the Chinese navy's pride and joy, the country's only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
It was a telling demonstration of China's growing confidence as a player on the world stage, as well as of how far it is from parity with the U.S. navy.
The Liaoning, bought second-hand from the Ukraine, has been refitted and put to sea in several training voyages, but Chinese pilots have managed only a handful of experimental flights.
China has one non-operational carrier. The U.S. has a dozen, in full-fledged battle groups.
Inviting the U.S. defence secretary to see such a discrepancy for himself would have been considered unthinkably shameful only a few years ago.
This time, it seems, it was a chance for military-to-military discussions of the trickiness of naval flying, and whether the U.S. could help.
Then there's North Korea
For Hagel in China, as for Obama when he moved on from Tokyo to Seoul, North Korea was a key issue.
In advance of Obama's arrival, the South Korean government claimed its intelligence services detected preparations in the North for another nuclear test, perhaps even timed to coincide with the presidential visit.
Obama's new warning to North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un, that any provocation would bring even tougher sanctions, only served to show how helpless the international community is when it comes to changing Pyongyang's mind.
Unmoved by past sanctions, Kim is clearly willing to see millions of its citizens starve rather than give up the nuclear program it sees as vital for regime survival.
Once again, China is the giant panda in the room. It alone can ensure that sanctions are rigorously applied to its North Korean neighbour and ally.
And here, too, there are some signs that China may be willing to play a more responsible role in the efforts to reign Kim in.
South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, quoting figures obtained by South Korea from the Chinese customs authorities, reports that China exported no oil to North Korea for the first three months of the year.
In the past, China has cut off oil supplies from time to time to put pressure on North Korea. But, according to Yonhap, this is the first time that the oil taps have been shut for three whole months.
If China is indeed willing to apply such a squeeze to North Korea, then Obama, and all the countries he's visiting, not to mention the rest of the world, will have reason to be grateful.
Rising tensions between China and its neighbours are real, and China's increasing tendency to throw its weight about do raise fears that miscalculations could lead to conflict.
But, given events in the Ukraine, it seems the old rivalry with Russia gives more immediate cause for concern than any superpower struggle in Asia.
Even with the still incomplete "pivot," Washington's relationship with Beijing appears so much better managed by both sides than the one with Moscow.
- An earlier version of this story said the U.S. has 68 aircraft carriers. It currently has 12 in active service, according to the U.S. Navy. Others have been decommissioned or are in active reserve.Apr 26, 2014 7:20 PM ET