The Obama Administration’s so-called “Pivot to the Asia-Pacific” strategic guidance, announced in November 2011, has received considerable attention by foreign officials and observers who cover US policy towards the Asia-Pacific. For the most part, Asian governments have interpreted the “pivot” as heralding renewed attention by the United States to military/security and economic developments in the region — especially with respect to China’s rapid growth in both spheres — and have therefore welcomed it.

In contrast, Middle Eastern officials and American Middle East “watchers,” many of whom have tended to view the new strategic guidance as a sign of faltering resolve and diminishing ability by the United States to maintain its presence in the region, have reacted to the pivot with a mixture of concern and uncertainty. These reactions are understandable, given the political turmoil throughout the region and the fact that how the strategic guidance will be implemented at the policy level in constrained fiscal circumstances has yet to be clearly articulated.

The purposes of this essay are twofold: 1) to bring to light the nuances and dual character of the US “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific, and 2) to suggest ways by which the strategic guidance could be further elaborated or modified so that the prospects for stability and security both in this region and in the Middle East are enhanced.

The US Pivot to the Asia-Pacific: Nuances and Dual Character

The issuing of the strategic guidance occurred in the context of four major developments: 1) Asia’s, especially China’s, dynamic economic growth; 2) China’s rapid military modernization and increasingly assertive posture in the South and East China Sea and beyond; 3) the US military drawdown in the broader Middle East, especially under the present fiscal constraints; and 4) increasing US economic interests, as well as strategic opportunities and concerns in the Asia-Pacific.

China’s robust economic growth is the enabler of its rapid military modernization. This has posed a dilemma for the United States. On the one hand, the Obama Administration has sought to bolster and capitalize on Asia’s economic growth by measures aimed at integrating China into the system of international norms and rules. On the other hand, the US Administration has felt it necessary to check China’s projection of military power, in light of the latter’s increasingly assertive moves in the western Pacific and so-called “String of Pearls” strategy.[1] Some commentators claim that the “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific represents a policy shift from the Obama Administration’s initial “engagement” approach to a more cautious policy of “hedging” against China. More broadly, they view the “pivot” as a modification of President Obama’s personal vision “to shape a new, multilateral global order with America still in the lead, especially in matters of hard power, sharing more responsibilities and more burdens with others where possible or necessary.”[2]

As the Obama Administration embarks on its second term, staffed with a new foreign affairs team of supposedly “like-minded” individuals, there is no indication that the “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific has been, or might soon be abandoned.[3] However, taking into consideration existing and newly emerging realities and more acute tensions both in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East, as well as reactions from China, prominent Washington “think tank” experts have recommended modest changes to the “pivot,” including efforts to tone down the containment posture towards China.[4]

There are some indications that a more nuanced version of the US rebalance toward Asia could be in the offing. Prior to his nomination as Secretary of State, then-Senator John Kerry emphasized the importance of maintaining a stable long-term trade relationship with China and countering China’s rise by means of a resurgent, more competitive American economy.[5] He also reaffirmed the US determination to fulfill its commitments in the Middle East, stating that “whatever we do in Asia should not come, and I hope will not come, at the expense of relationship in Europe or in the Middle East.”[6]

Similarly, the US Department of Defense (DoD) FY2013 budget submission identifies the Middle East as a continuing priority, along with the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, numerous US officials and policy experts have spoken out against a premature shift of attention and resources away from the Middle East, given the pressing realities on the ground requiring American involvement, which range from the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program to the civil war in Syria and the political turbulence elsewhere in the region.

The US “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific has a dual character. Specifically with respect to China, the Obama Administration seems to be oscillating between a policy of engagement and a policy of containment, presumably predicated on the belief that the current situation does not require a decisive choice. More broadly, the Administration appears to have recognized that the United States cannot be continuously prepared to conduct two simultaneous full-scale land wars or “wars of choice” under the current fiscal constraints and in light of the American public’s focus on domestic economic concerns. Thus the appeal of an engagement-first approach that at the same time affords the possibility of employing pressure/force against adversaries.

Chinese officials and scholars have tended to regard the Obama Administration’s “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific as a containment policy that is based on a hidden intention of hindering China’s ability to catch up with and surpass the American economy and of keeping the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) in check in the western Pacific and beyond. Many different schools of thought are said to exist in Chinese academia and within government circles regarding the implications of the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific. Nevertheless, there seems to be broad agreement that the US strategy is “a mixture of ‘engagement’ and ‘strategic hedging’ towards China.”[7] One interesting, though unofficial, reaction to the US “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific appeared in an October 2012 article by Wang Jisi, Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, who proposed that China undertake a Westward Pivot to Southwest Asia and the Middle East (“Marching West”).[8] He argues that unlike the Asia-Pacific, where US dominance is well established, West Asia/Middle East is an area where Chinese involvement might stir less controversy and find more opportunities, including by working with the United States to further common interests. It remains to be seen whether the Chinese government will embrace a “Marching West” approach and if so, with the dual goal in mind of proposing cooperation with the US in the Middle East in order to counter the US containment policy towards China. Here again it is important for both sides to try its best to avoid the spiral of mutual distrust. In this connection, one thing is very clear: If China bets on the scenario that Arab governments which are friendly toward the United States might fall and thus opts to network with anti-American states/entities in the Middle East, this will merely convince US officials and their Arab partners of the necessity of adopting a real containment approach.  

Some analysts argue that since the Arab Spring began, “Global Authoritarians” (i.e., China, Russia, Iran, and other like-minded states) “have worked to consolidate their standing as a counterweight in the Middle East to the United States and its Western allies.”[9] One might add to this equation the linkage between Iran and North Korea, both of which present a challenge to the international community’s non-proliferation efforts. The “Global Authoritarians” construct highlights yet again the interconnection between the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East and suggests the need for a US security strategy that accounts for these cross-regional dynamics.

Towards an Integrated Approach 

There is a need for the United States to adopt an integrated approach, that is, one that encompasses both the Asia-Pacific and Middle East. After all, Asia-Pacific economic growth is heavily dependent on the oil/gas resources of the Middle East and the security and safety of navigation in the maritime space between these regions. For this reason and because of the important bilateral relations the United States has with countries in both the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, it is neither accurate nor prudent for Washington to treat the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East as separate regions, or to rebalance its weight without taking into full account cross-regional considerations.

As stated in a thought-provoking paper published by the Brookings Institution in June 2012 entitled “CENTCOM’s China Challenge: Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2AD) in the Middle East,” there are “limits to any strategic rebalancing that ignores ongoing political and economic dynamics across regions. The US may want to pivot away from the Middle East, but in reality the Middle East remains the focal point for the continued economic prosperity of the Asia-Pacific, US national interests, and US allies’ energy needs in the Middle East. A continued presence in the region will be of critical value to strategic efforts in the Asia-Pacific, serve to assure allies, safeguard the flow of oil and thus promote global economic and political stability.”[10]

Today, and for the foreseeable future, the Middle East faces a host of risks and challenges. In the near term, there is the possibility of military conflict stemming from the unresolved dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Nor can the possibility that either a collapse of the regime or a political transition in Syria might destabilize the surrounding states be ruled out. Conditions in those Arab countries which have already experienced revolutions such as Tunisia and Egypt could further deteriorate, while in countries such as Jordan or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the pace of reform might falter, triggering political upheaval. These are but a few of the security challenges facing the region. Were any of these scenarios to materialize, they would not necessarily constitute a threat to the US homeland, but would nonetheless negatively affect American strategic interests as well as the interests of its allies and partners.

The Asia-Pacific is relatively volatile as well. However, potential military conflicts in the Asia-Pacific, unlike in the Middle East, will remain basically between states without the participation of non-state players. Moreover, the number of potential states challenging the US and its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific is limited. Looking at the near-term security risks, many observers have expressed concern about the possibility of renewed tension or crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons development spinning out of control and of an isolated non-governmental incident sparking a naval clash between China and one of its neighbors in the South and East China Seas.

The complex security challenges that exist in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific cry out for continued US involvement. To be sure, this involvement must include a US military capability that responds to the concrete challenges prioritized in the two regions and reflects fiscal limitations. Planning on the military side in this regard has already started following the five tenets from President Obama.[11]But it should include a more innovative and proactive diplomatic component as well ― one that seeks to enlist major stakeholders in cross-regional cooperative endeavors.    

With respect to the Middle East, fiscal constraints and other circumstances, as previously discussed, are likely to weaken the United States’ ability to serve as the primary security provider. China and other major Asian countries have a great stake in the security and stability of the Middle East.[12] The United States would be well advised to explore whether, and how these stakeholders could be induced to play constructive roles in the region. Similarly, there is an urgent need for the United States to lead/engage major states, including potential challengers, to build a more resilient regional order in the Asia-Pacific. In fact, even some Chinese academics have stated that they would accept US primacy in the Asia-Pacific, provided that the United States were willing and able to sustain security, stability and open commercial exchanges, though they would reject US primacy for its own sake (i.e., simply to ensure American hegemony). Now may be the time for the United States to start testing China’s readiness to play a constructive role in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East — to discuss possible cooperation from the standpoint of contributing to regional/global interests rather than simply for the sake of narrow national interests in preventing or managing specific crises.    

Conclusion

The Second Obama Administration is not about to abandon the “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. Nor should it, given the considerable US interests and commitments in the region. At the same time, there are signs that the Administration recognizes the need to temper its approach, specifically with respect to China. There are also signs that the Administration is cognizant of the need to remain engaged in the Middle East.

In order to balance its interests in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East while facing fiscal constraints, the United States would be well advised to adopt an integrated approach ― one that is attuned to the cross-regional dynamics and that combines military readiness with creative diplomacy, including fully exploring China’s willingness to cooperate, not only in dealing with DPRK’s nuclear proliferation issue, but also in resolving difficult Middle East challenges such as the conflict in Syria and the nuclear issue with Iran, as a contribution to the regional/global interests. 


[1] Defense Strategic Guidance, http://www.defense.gov/news/Defense_Strategic_Guidance.pdf. See also Mark Manyin et al., Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s “Rebalancing” Toward Asia, Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress (March 28, 2012), http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R42448.pdf.

[2] Martin Indyk et al., Bending History (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2012).

[3] National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon’s speech at Asia Society on March 11, 2013, http://asiasociety.org/video/policy/national-security-advisor-thomas-donilon-complete.

[4]Kenneth Lieberthal, “Bringing Beijing Back In,” Brookings Institution (January 17, 2013), http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2013/01/bringing-beijing-back-…;

[5] See Nina Hachigian, “Senator Kerry’s Approach to China as Secretary of States,” Center for American Progress (January 24, 2013), http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/china/news/2013/01/24/50564/sen-kerrys-approach-to-china-as-secretary-of-state/. See also Tom McKay, “John Kerry Secretary of State Nomination: What It Means for America,” Policymic.com, http://www.policymic.com/articles/20914/john-kerry-secretary-of-state-nomination-what-it-means-for-america.

[6] John F. Kerry, Statement Before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee (January 24, 2013), http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/John%20F%20Kerry%20Testimon…;

[7] David Shambaugh, “China as a Global Power: Understanding Beijing’s Competing Identities,” presentation delivered at the conference on “China as a Global Power: Contending Views from China,” convened at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (November 15, 2012), http://www.risingpowersinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/PolicyReport_Feb2013_ChinaGlobalPower.pdf.

[8] Yun Sun, “Westward Ho!” Foreign Policy (February 7, 2013), http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/02/07/westward_ho_china_asia_pivot?wp_login_redirect=0.

[9] Daniel Brumberg and Steven Heydemann, “Global Authoritarians and the Arab Spring: New Challenges for U.S. Diplomacy” The Woodrow Wilson Center/US Institute of Peace (January 2013), http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/global_authoritarians_and%20_the_arab_spring_1.pdf.

[10] Lt. Colonel Eduardo Abisellan, “CENTCOM’s China Challenge: Anti-Access and Area Denial in the Middle East,” Brookings Institution (June 28, 2012), http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/06/28-centcom-china-abisellan.

[11]  Anthony Cordesman and Robert M. Shelala II, “US Strategy, Sequestration, and the Growing Strategy-Reality Gap,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS Report), revised March 11, 2013, pp. 158-169, 170-178, http://csis.org/publication/us-strategy-sequestration-and-growing-strategy-reality-gap-0.  

[12] Jon Alterman, “China’s Soft Power in the United States,” in Carola McGiffert (ed.), Chinese Soft Power and Its Implications for the United States (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2009), pp. 63–76.