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“The U.S. can still hold its own on this contest and still prevail by keeping the region behind the U.S. presence,” he said. “If we don’t respond vigorously, over time, we’re going to be just muscled out of the region and China will be the dominant power.”

Mr. Rubin said Washington should be more active in seizing opportunities for the U.S. Navy to make statements in the region. “We can consider our aircraft carriers as floating embassies in a way,” he said, arguing that Washington has made a mistake in recent years by turning down invitations from Cambodia to make ports of call.

“The reason we don’t take advantage of this enough is because we do not see influence as a zero-sum game the way that the Chinese do,” Mr. Rubin said. “All the countries in the region realize this is the Chinese mentality. We, on the other hand, are wallowing in blissful ignorance of the way our adversaries think.”

As a result, he said, Taiwan and other allies are questioning the U.S. commitment. Taipei, he said, has become significantly closer to Beijing in recent years “because they see us as unreliable.”

Mr. Cronin said the Obama administration deserves some credit for its pivot to Asia and for pushing ahead with massive U.S. military and strategic realignments during the past five years — even at a time of significant strain on the U.S. economy.

“We’re transitioning from a land-based military to an air- and sea-based posture, and we’re transitioning from Middle East wars to more of a broad Indo-Pacific engagement,” he said. “We’re doing the right reorientation, but we’re not doing it very effectively because we’re big and slow and cumbersome and we have domestic political and budget constraints.

“The point is that it’s not going as well as anyone would like, but it’s also not going so badly strategically,” Mr. Cronin said. “I think the Obama team is making the necessary strategic shifts from a posture in which we could not win, to a posture in which we have a chance to keep the leading role in the world.”