KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — President Barack Obama is hopscotching through China's neighborhood with a carefully calibrated message for Beijing, trying both to counter and to court.
During visits to U.S. allies, Obama has signaled that American military power can blunt Chinese aggression in the Asia-Pacific region, even as he urges Beijing to use its growing clout to help resolve international disputes with Russia and North Korea.
The dual tracks underscore Beijing's outsized importance to Obama's four-country swing through Asia, even though China is absent from his itinerary.
The president opened a long-awaited visit to Malaysia on Saturday, following stops in Japan and South Korea, and ahead of a visit to the Philippines.
Obama's trip comes at a tense time for the region, where China's aggressive stance in territorial disputes has its smaller neighbors on edge.
There also are continued questions about the White House's commitment to a greater U.S. focus on Asia. In an affirmation, Obama is expected to sign a security agreement with the Philippines clearing the way for an increased American troop presence there.
In Tokyo, Obama asserted that a treaty obligating the United States to defend Japan would apply if Beijing makes a move on a string of islands in the East China Sea that Japan administers but China also claims.
Yet, at times, Obama has tempered his tough talk in an attempt to avoid antagonizing Beijing.
To the chagrin of the Japanese, Obama said the United States would not pick sides in the sovereignty claims at the heart of the region's territorial disputes. He repeatedly declared that the United States is not asking Asian allies to choose between a relationship with Washington and Beijing.
"I think there's enormous opportunities for trade, development, working on common issues like climate change with China," Obama said during a news conference in Tokyo. "But what we've also emphasized — and I will continue to emphasize throughout this trip — is that all of us have responsibilities to help maintain basic rules of the road and an international order."
Analysts say Obama can maintain a China policy that both looks to Beijing for help while also trying to counter its rise, but only if the dividing line between those positions remains clear.
"If you are consistent, they'll be willing to have you push them occasionally on things that are sensitive or where there are areas of dispute," Chris Johnson, a China scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of Beijing's leaders. "It's where you're not consistent and they're not sure what you're going to do next that causes them … consternation."