Updated Sept. 7, 2016 8:00 p.m. ET
VIENTIANE, Laos—One of President Barack Obama’s final turns on the international stage before leaving office spotlighted how some world leaders are testing the limits of U.S. power just months before a new American administration.
From the moment Mr. Obama stepped off the plane in the lakeside city of Hangzhou, China, through his meetings at a summit in Laos, he has faced challenges to his policies and overall American authority in ways large and small.
Russian President Vladimir Putin left the Obama administration empty-handed after intense negotiations on a deal to reduce violence in Syria. North Korea, the glaring setback in Mr. Obama’s Asia policy, tested ballistic missiles. On Tuesday, U.S. officials said Iran made yet another provocative move toward a U.S. Navy ship in the Persian Gulf.
And while Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted Mr. Obama for a lengthy one-on-one meeting and cooperated with the U.S. on climate change, significant areas of tension between the two countries went unresolved.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said most of these developments “are just the latest installments of long-running sagas,” citing Russia and Syria, North Korea and differences between the U.S. and Turkey over the Kurds.
“They are all manifestations of what I would describe as a world in disarray,” he said.
Still, the Obama administration’s effort to shift U.S. diplomatic and military attention toward Asia has left a mark, sending more U.S. forces, ships, planes into the region on a rotating basis while increasing military sales. Two key steps include a new U.S.-Philippine military agreement implemented this year, and a decision this year to lift restrictions on military sales to Vietnam.
“The Obama administration has been successful in deepening relationships with its treaty allies—notably Japan, Australia and the Philippines—and in accelerating growing ties with newer partners like Vietnam and India,” said Michael Mazza, a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. He called the steps important in maintaining a favorable balance of power.
However, the steps taken by the U.S. haven’t yet deterred China from acting assertively and even aggressively, he said. “It’s too early to call the ‘rebalance’ a failure, but with Asia on the edge of crisis for several years now, nor can we call it a success,” Mr. Mazza said.
Given U.S. investments in Southeast Asia, and its massive military presence, “it’s China that is trying to compete with U.S. influence in the region—not the other way round,” said Ian Storey, a Southeast Asia expert at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“That’s not to say that Southeast Asian countries aren’t eager to attract Chinese money,” he added. “But when you’re throwing your weight around the South China Sea, I think there’s a limit as to how much influence and reassurance you can buy.”
There have been bright spots during Mr. Obama’s trip to Asia this week, the last one he said he would make as president.
In China, Messrs. Obama and Xi announced new efforts to address climate change. Each country formally adopted the international climate-change deal reached in Paris in December and a road map for talks on reducing emissions in commercial aircraft and phasing out hydrofluorocarbons, which are linked to climate change. The president also pledged to double aid to Laos to help clean up unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War—to $90 million over the next three years. Unexploded bombs dropped by American planes decades ago have killed or maimed thousands of Laotians since the war.
Still, there was a sense that as Mr. Obama enters the autumn of his second term, concerns are rising that the U.S. is losing its ability to shape events in Asia. “There is a great power shift taking place,” said Bilveer Singh, an associate professor and an expert in international relations at the National University of Singapore. “We’re basically talking about the rise of China and the decline or recession of the United States.”
Mr. Obama’s focus on Asia during his presidency has been substantial as he implemented his policy of rebalancing relations in the region through engagement with China while also countering its influence by strengthening ties with its neighbors. He has traveled to Asia 11 times since taking office in 2009, including twice to Myanmar and as the first U.S. leader to visit Laos.
The president’s advisers say his approach has given the U.S. more, not less, influence in the region than when he entered the White House, pointing to deeper commercial ties and a larger U.S. military presence in the region.
“U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific has increased, and we have climbed back from the substantial damage that the Iraq war and the financial crisis did to America’s standing,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser.
“There is a natural evolution in the global power dynamic that has been taking place for decades as China and other nations have risen,” he said. “But we have focused on strengthening the institutions, international norms and global cooperation in ways that extend U.S. leadership.”
Yet whether U.S. lawmakers approve what Mr. Obama sees as the linchpin of his Asia policy—the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal—is in doubt.
And as world leaders from the Group of 20 leading economies huddled in China, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. The move underscored why administration officials see North Korea as one of the most high-stakes foreign policy challenges that Mr. Obama’s successor will inherit.
The threat from Pyongyang has grown during Mr. Obama’s presidency, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to continue pouring the country’s limited resources into its nuclear weapons program. The White House doesn’t expect to make any significant progress on the issue before Mr. Obama leaves office.
Mr. Obama has pressed China on North Korea, and Beijing agreed this year to support new sanctions against Pyongyang. But U.S. officials want China to do more.
It is just one point of tension between the U.S. and China. The two countries also have differences over the South China Sea, the economy, human rights and cybersecurity.
Chinese government officials appeared to set subtle challenges to American authority throughout Mr. Obama’s three-day visit.
As Air Force One prepared to land in Hangzhou, U.S. and Chinese officials argued over which stairs Mr. Obama would use to deplane, leading to a new and confused exit plan. Chinese officials yelled at White House officials over the presence of reporters on the tarmac and at times refused to allow the president’s press contingent to travel in his motorcade and cover his events at the summit, as is customary.
Both countries said the strains were overblown. But the tensions fueled the perception that China feels increasingly emboldened to challenge the U.S.
The standoff with the Philippines added a new dimension to the foreign policy concerns facing the next U.S. president. Mr. Duterte later expressed regret for his remarks, and a White House official said the two leaders exchanged pleasantries as they gathered before Wednesday’s Asean gala dinner in Vientiane. But it is unusual for a treaty ally to confront the U.S. so aggressively and that leaves Mr. Obama’s successor with an added uncertainty.
Philippine labor secretary Silvestre Bello said Mr. Duterte was probably mindful of Mr. Obama’s departure from office in January. For the recently-elected Mr. Duterte, “establishing a strong foreign relation with an outgoing president” wasn’t a high priority, he said.
Chinese state media seemed to relish the incident. The nationalist tabloid Global Times calling Mr. Duterte’s outburst an understandable response to the tendency by Western countries to impose their values on human rights on other countries. “He stood for all developing countries with his ‘fed-up’ mood,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
—Ben Otto and Trefor Moss contributed to this article.
Write to Carol E. Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications:
North Korea’s leader is Kim Jong Un. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated his name. (Sept. 7, 2016)
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