The administration’s “pivot” to Asia is an overriding issue. Mr. Obama will need to decide just how far he wants to go in fortifying the U.S. military posture in the Pacific, especially in a dispute with U.S. ally and treaty partner Japan over an island chain.

“We will have to see what Xi Jinping will want to do once he takes power,” said Dan Blumenthal, an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “China’s dispute with Japan will probably be the biggest headache for all of us.”

At home, Mr. Obama’s emphasis on Asia is drawing fire both for doing too much and too little. Some conservatives, including Mr. Romney, argue that the administration’s pivot is a rhetorical device without military substance. These critics say that a small U.S. Navy can’t provide enough muscle in the Western Pacific to realistically deter China or to reassure allies.

At the same time, other analysts believe the U.S. shift is likely to exacerbate tensions and reinforce China’s long-standing fears it is being encircled by hostile forces without directly buttressing U.S. national interests.

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