Editorial page editor, 2000-2021

As President Obama ponders his second-term foreign policy, he faces jihadists spreading across North Africa, Syria dissolving into chaos, Israelis and Palestinians further apart than ever, Iraq trending toward civil war, Afghanistan mired in corruption and Iran relentlessly accelerating its nuclear program.

That may turn out to be the easy stuff.

In Asia, things could get really scary.

Since he entered the White House, Obama has wanted to shift attention and resources to the Pacific. The biggest opportunities are there: economic growth, innovation, potential for cross-border investment and trade. That the 21st century will be a Pacific century has become a cliche.

The cliche may still prove out. But rather suddenly, the region of economic miracles has become a zone of frightening confrontation. The North Koreans are turning out videos depicting New York in flames. Chinese warships have fixed their weapon-targeting radar on a Japanese ship and helicopter. Quarrels have intensified between South Korea and Japan, North Korea and South Korea, China and the Philippines, India and China. Taiwan is always a possible flashpoint. Any one of these could drag the United States in.

The scariest development may be in North Korea, the world’s only hereditary prison camp, where the young leader — the third-generation Kim — seems determined to expand and improve his nuclear arsenal until he becomes a genuine threat not only to South Korea and Japan but to the United States as well. Chinese officials are said to be alarmed by his intransigence but unwilling to try to rein him in, fearing even more the instability that might result. Obama in his first term adopted a reasonable policy of ignoring North Korea as much as possible, while making clear that he would reciprocate if it became more accommodating. Kim Jong Eun, who is thought to be in his late 20s, could find ways to make that stance untenable.

Meanwhile, China’s increasing assertiveness discomfits neighbors throughout Southeast and East Asia. China has claimed pretty much the whole South China Sea, though its coastline is farther from much of it than that of Vietnam, Malaysia or the Philippines. It has sent planes and ships to challenge Japan over a few rocky outcroppings that Japan calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyu Islands. It has been steadily increasing the size and capability of its military forces; for the first time in many years, a neighbor, Japan, is following suit.

If all this seems decidedly last century, maybe it’s because new leaders in every key country are second- or third-generation, bearing the burdens of their past. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the grandson of a leader of imperial Japan—including in occupied China — who remade himself as a pro-American prime minister after World War II. South Korea’s president-elect, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of a longtime president; her mother was killed by a devotee of North Korea. (The bullet was intended for her father, who was later assassinated by his intelligence chief.) Xi Jinping, China’s new president, is the son of a revolutionary colleague of Mao Tsetung who helped battle the Japanese during World War II. North Korea’s Kim Jong Eun is the grandson of Kim Il-sung, who according to North Korean mythology fought the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s and the Americans and South Koreans in the 1950s.

It’s intriguing to speculate on the ghostly whisperings these leaders may hear. It may be more useful, though, to focus on the national weaknesses that may propel them to act. North Korea is a failed and hungry state for which blackmail and bluster have long been the only survival strategy. China is a rising power and a growing economy — but led by a one-party regime that may be tempted to use nationalism to distract a restive population from domestic troubles. Japan has discarded one prime minister after another, pretty much on an annual basis, for most of the past decade, an instability that leaves it punching below its economic and military weight.

All of this makes the region hungry for U.S. presence and leadership, which Obama understood with his first-term promise of a “pivot” to Asia. Regional leaders hope he can make good on that promise in a second term but wonder whether U.S. policy, too, will be shaped by political weakness. They notice when the Navy announces that it is, again, reducing its planned number of ships or Defense Secretary Leon Panetta orders an aircraft carrier kept in port because of budgetary constraints. They wonder who will inherit the Asia focus of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and departing assistant secretary Kurt Campbell. They see the dangers, from Mali to Kandahar, that pull Obama’s attention. They hope it won’t take a more dangerous crisis in their region to make the pivot a reality.

Read more from Fred Hiatt’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.