TEL AVIV – In 2010, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced America’s eastward shift in global strategy. The United States’ “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region was required not only because of the security threats posed by the rise of China, but also as a consequence of America’s long and costly obsession with the Middle East.
The Middle East has long confronted the US with formidable challenges, which ultimately exceeded America’s imperial capacities and sapped public support. But the real question now is whether America is still able and willing to uphold its global pretensions. After all, Asia is no less a demanding theater than the Middle East. Indeed, dealing with it might require reconciling the pivot to Asia with an ongoing presence in the Middle East, if only because the two regions have much in common.
For starters, in a region replete with territorial disputes and old rivalries that are as bitter as the Arab-Israeli conflict, America faces a geopolitical environment with no security architecture and no agreed conflict-resolution mechanism. The division of the Korean Peninsula, the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, and the question of Taiwan (which by 2020 the US will no longer be able to defend from a Chinese attack, according to a 2009 study by the RAND Corporation) appear as intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Moreover, like the Middle East, Asia is home to an uncontrolled arms race that includes both conventional capabilities and weapons of mass destruction. Four of the world’s ten largest militaries are in Asia, and five Asian countries are full-fledged nuclear powers.
Nor does the Middle East have a monopoly on Islamist extremism, ethnic tension, or terrorism. China’s restive Muslim Uighurs, the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the secessionist Muslim insurgency in the Philippines, and the ethnic separatist insurgency in southern Thailand all highlight Asia’s complex tapestry of unresolved religious and ethnic trouble spots.
Moreover, America’s Asian pivot is occurring at a time when its international credibility has been badly eroded by domestic political dysfunction and disappointing performance in the Middle East. This, for example, explains Japan’s fear that the US might eventually reach an accommodation with China over the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese). Indeed, Japan’s quest to re-establish its own military capability is a vote of limited confidence in its US ally.
Obama’s recent wavering on the use of force in Syria has left many in Asia doubting whether they can rely on America not only if China forcibly asserts its maritime claims, but also if North Korea carries out its threats to attack the South. Conspicuously, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s “Trustpolitik” – a soft-power approach to North Korea that calls for deeper cooperation with China, the North’s most important ally – is particularly popular.
As in the Middle East, America’s bilateral military relationships in Asia are often with “frenemies,” countries that share an alliance with the US while deeply mistrusting one another. US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s agreement in early October with his South Korean counterpart on a Tailored Deterrence strategy became untenable a few days later, when the US promised Japan a massive upgrading of its military capabilities. South Korea views this as tantamount to outsourcing China’s containment to an unrepentant imperial power.
In any case, an American withdrawal from the Middle East is hardly a recipe for countering China’s rise in East Asia, given that the two regions are increasingly intertwined. While the US is pivoting to the East, leaving old allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt deeply resentful, China is pivoting westward.
China’s exports to the Middle East are already more than twice those of the US. Its annual exports to Turkey total $23 billion, and now include military supplies, such as a missile-defense system that is not compatible with those of Turkey’s NATO allies. If China’s penetration into the Middle East persists at the current pace, it might even be able to obstruct the flow of energy resources to America’s Asian allies.
In a global competition, a superpower’s competitors are bound to exploit its weaknesses. The 2008 financial crisis, which destroyed the mystique of Western economic prowess, led to a marked a shift in China’s global strategy. The Chinese began toying with the idea of abandoning their “peaceful rise” in favor of what then-President Hu Jintao defined at a July 2009 conference of Chinese diplomats as “the democratization of international relations” and “global multipolarity.”
The US, as hegemon in the Middle East for many years, could not solve any of the region’s major problems single-handedly. If its pivot to Asia is to be credible, the US will eventually have to agree to be one among a number of great powers in Asia, a co-equal partner with China, Japan, and India in shaping the region’s strategic environment.
Copyright Project Syndicate
Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace, is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.
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