Political problems at home could also cramp Obama's outreach to Asia.
His most immediate domestic challenge is an impending showdown over tackling the national debt that economists say could send the world's biggest economy back into recession.
Even before Obama gets to his second inaugural on Jan. 20, he must reach a budget deal with Republicans to prevent a combination of automatic tax increases and steep across- he-board spending cuts – dubbed a “fiscal cliff'' – set to take effect in January. That would entail nearly $500 billion in defense spending cuts over a decade that could undermine plans to devote more military assets to the Asia-Pacific, where the increased capabilities of Chinese forces pose a growing challenge to U.S. pre-eminence in the region.
China is already acting with growing assertiveness in the seas of East Asia.
Its territorial dispute over islands administered by U.S. treaty ally Japan could trigger a military confrontation between Asia's two biggest economies. This year, China has already faced down the Philippines over sovereignty of a reef in the South China Sea, where the competition among China and its neighbors for fish and potential underwater
oil and gas reserves could also sow seeds of conflict.
Two years ago, Clinton announced the U.S. national interest in the peaceful resolution of South China Sea. That step irked Beijing, and managing those diplomatic tensions will be of growing importance in the second term. Washington supports efforts by Southeast Asian nations to negotiate collectively with China on the disputes, but China remains reluctant to play ball.
A strident nationalistic tone in China's state rhetoric in its dispute with Japan has fueled concerns that the Communist Party could increasingly resort to such patriotic appeals if China's juggernaut economy slows and public dissatisfaction with the party grows further.
Obama has attempted a balancing act in relations with Beijing, seeking deeper ties and encouraging it to play by international norms to ward off the possibility of confrontation, but also stepping up trade complaints in an effort to protect the interests of U.S. companies.
His second term is likely to see more attention on economic ties with Asia. The U.S. will be looking to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation regional trade pact that excludes China. In a time of bitter partisanship in Washington, that could be an issue where Obama finds common cause with Republicans.