By Steve Holland and Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will travel to China, Japan and South Korea in the first week of December, a trip designed to emphasize the U.S. commitment to a policy pivot toward Asia.
With events in the Middle East and domestic policy battles dominating President Barack Obama's attention in recent months, questions have emerged about the extent of Obama's commitment to this shift, particularly after the president canceled participation in two Asia-specific summits last month.
Obama had to stay in Washington instead of visiting four Asian nations last month to deal with a fiscal stalemate that led to a U.S. government shutdown.
The move raised further doubts over a policy aimed at re-invigorating U.S. military and economic influence in the region as China becomes more assertive. Some commentators in the region felt the cancellations amounted to a strategic withdrawal from the pivot.
Biden will reinforce the message that Washington is committed to sustained diplomatic, economic and security engagement in Asia on a trip that is expected to include talks with the leaders of each country, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, sources familiar with the trip planning told Reuters.
In Japan, Biden will discuss efforts to advance a broad U.S.-Asia trade agreement known as the Trans Pacific Partnership. In South Korea, Biden will discuss economic relations, as well as long-standing efforts to rein in North Korea's nuclear program.
China will be the most delicate stop diplomatically, with trade issues, cybersecurity, North Korea and human rights all topics that could be discussed.
Biden was instrumental in what U.S. officials say was the critical task of cementing a good relationship with Xi before he rose to the top of the Chinese power structure last March. It was Biden, they say, who helped lay the groundwork for talks that Obama had with Xi in California last June.
Biden's trip in December will likely make him the first senior U.S. official to visit Bejing after the important Communist Party Central Committee plenum to be held from November 9-12, at which China is expected to unveil its economic reform blueprint for the coming five to 10 years.
The world will be closely watching the party meeting for signs as to whether China will shift to a growth model that relies less on huge capital investment and cheap exports - a move that would be welcomed by the United States because it should trim the huge $300 billion annual U.S. trade deficit with China.
Other issues likely to come up during the trip are Chinese pressure on Japan over their maritime territory dispute and overall regional security.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Paul Eckert; Editing by David Brunnstrom)