In November 2011, with the Arab Spring uprisings in full tilt and Europe rocked by a debt crisis, President Barack Obama flew to Asia to promote a shift of America's military, diplomatic and business assets to the region. His then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, declared in the same year that the 21st century would be "America's Pacific century."
Fast-forward to today: as Obama flies to Asia on Sunday, Washington's "pivot" to the region is becoming more visible. It includes deployment of American Marines in Darwin, Australia, stepped up U.S. naval visits to the Philippines and many more joint drills with that nation's armed forces, as well as the lifting of a ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam.
But just as Washington seeks to expand American interests in Asia as a counterpoint to China's growing influence, some U.S. partners have shown less willingness to challenge Beijing. That may mean China will have a freer hand to assert its authority in the resource-rich South China Sea, where its territorial claims overlap those of Taiwan and four Southeast Asian countries.
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The drubbing Obama's Democrats took in this week's mid-term elections, defeats that were blamed by many on his leadership, will hardly strengthen his position in discussions with China or with allies in the region. Obama will have less room for maneuver on foreign policy now he has a Republican-controlled Senate to deal with, and the political focus in Washington is already starting to turn to the 2016 presidential election.
Although several countries, notably the Philippines and Vietnam, have sought closer U.S. ties as a defense against what they see as China's aggression in pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea, other long-established alliances have become less robust.