War with Iran? 5 ways events overseas could shape Obama's second term.

The threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program is the most urgent example of the foreign-policy challenges that face President Obama in his second term. Here are four others.

4. China and Russia

  • close
    Communist leaders stand to hear the national anthem during the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Thursday.
    Lee Jin-man/AP
    View Caption
  • About video ads
    View Caption

There’s one thing Obama won’t do, and that is to declare China a “currency manipulator” on Jan. 21, as Republican challenger Mitt Romney pledged to do on Day 1 of his administration. But relations with China are likely to take a rough turn in a second Obama term all the same, some Asia experts say, just as they are with another global power, Russia.

China, which is undergoing a once-a-decade leadership change, is suspicious of American intentions behind Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. China sees US involvement in various territorial disputes it has with neighbors as meddling. A powerful China sees an advantage in addressing the disputes on a bilateral basis with smaller countries also claiming the territory in question. It is dismissive of the US position that the territorial claims, largely concentrated in the South China Sea region, should be taken up in a multilateral fashion, where presumably the smaller claimants would benefit from a certain collective power.

At the same time, China sees US initiatives under Obama to strengthen relations with longtime allies and partners in the region, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, as part of a strategy of containment, something the US denies. 

China is also suspicious of the Obama administration’s support for democratic advances among China’s neighbors. That particular bone of contention will be raised again later in November when Obama makes a stop in Myanmar (Burma) – the first ever there by a US president – as part of a Southeast Asia tour.

Obama, on what might be called the “Asia Pivot Tour,” will take in the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia, and will stop in Thailand. But by adding a stop in Myanmar, Obama will be celebrating the ongoing transition to democracy of a longtime reclusive military (and China-friendly) dictatorship – something China-watchers say some in Beijing will view as provocative.

As for Russia, Obama is unlikely to have the kind of productive relationship he had with former President Dmitry Medvedev with Vladimir Putin, who returned to the Russian presidency in March. At one point in Obama’s first term, the “reset” of relations he accomplished with Russia under Mr. Medvedev was hailed by numerous experts as Obama’s top foreign-policy achievement. But those days appear to be gone as Russia under Mr. Putin shows signs of becoming increasingly anti-American.

Deep disagreement and mutual suspicion over each power’s aims in Syria are also likely to keep relations on the chilly side.

4 of 5