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Europe's debt problems do have the White House's attention. Yesterday, President Obama called leaders of Italy, Germany and France. But this weekend he is heading in the opposite direction, and that symbolizes a new direction of American foreign policy. This evening, the president travels to his childhood hometown, Honolulu, Hawaii. He will meet leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC. The president is hosting the group's annual summit.

Many American policymakers see a larger future for the U.S. in Asia than in Europe, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This is a shift that's been described by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as America's Pacific Century. She argues that it's time for the U.S. to reposition itself in the world. Here's how she put it in a recent speech to the Economic Club of New York.

HILLARY CLINTON: As we end the war in Iraq and begin bringing troops back from Afghanistan, we are making an important pivot. The world's strategic and economic center of gravity is shifting east, and we are focusing more on the Asia Pacific region.

SHAPIRO: That was an economic speech. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made a similar point about America's military positioning in a recent speech in Tokyo.

LEON PANETTA: United States is, and always will be, a Pacific power. And we are here to stay.

SHAPIRO: Despite what Panetta says, the U.S. has historically been a Eurocentric country. American students are more likely to learn Spanish or French than they are Mandarin or Hindi. In the 20th century, Washington's international agenda almost always put Europe first. Now Europe is struggling, Asia is booming, and America is readjusting.

MICHAEL GREEN: There is a new meaning, in the 21st century, of go west young man, go west, and in this case, it's go across the Pacific and engage with Asia.

SHAPIRO: Marshall Bouton is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He says historians may look back on this APEC meeting in Honolulu as a tipping point.

GREEN: As an inflection point in world affairs and in the U.S. role in the world, because we are now coming face to face with an Asia, and a China in particular, that are on the path to global, if not dominance, at least to direct competition with the United States for global dominance.

SHAPIRO: To an outside observer, these meetings of world leaders won't look competitive. But Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says there is a tug-of-war happening just out of sight.

GREEN: Although the themes are community-building and cooperation, beneath the surface they're becoming an arena for subtle, but for the region, quite unnerving power plays and influence games between the U.S. and China.

SHAPIRO: President Obama will have to persuade this global audience that the U.S. remains a world leader, even though he's presiding over a politically gridlocked government that is unable to get the U.S. economy out of its slump. Jacques DeLisle of the Foreign Policy Research Institute says democratic countries living in China's shadow need this reassurance right now.

JACQUES DELISLE: China really has squandered a lot of the soft power that it had accumulated earlier in the decade and has made its neighbors very wary.

SHAPIRO: So, President Obama's message in Hawaii will echo the earlier messages from Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta: the U.S. is in Asia to stay. This is not only an issue of global dominance. The U.S. also needs people in Asia's growing middle class to buy American products. Michael Green of CSIS says that's one path out of the economic doldrums.

GREEN: The real narrative I think the president will want to tell is that America has a trade agenda. We didn't for years. But now that the Korea Free Trade Agreement has passed in the Congress, the president can start talking about the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

SHAPIRO: That's a nine-country agreement to establish more trade across the Pacific Ocean. When the APEC meeting ends in Honolulu, Air Force One will fly to Australia and Indonesia. It's the third time Mr. Obama has visited Asia as president. And this White House would argue, it's what the times require.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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