The Obama administration’s foreign policy energies are fully engaged in the Middle East — negotiating the Iran deal, sending Special Operations forces into Iraq, supporting Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, working with the Syrian rebels. Whatever happened to the pivot to Asia?
Remember, the basic argument behind the pivot was that the United States was overinvested in the Middle East, a crisis-prone region of dwindling importance to the U.S. national interest. Asia, on the other hand, is the future. Of the four largest economies, three are in Asia, if measured by purchasing-power parity. As Singapore’s late leader Lee Kuan Yew often told me, “America will remain the world’s dominant power in the 21st century only if it is the dominant Pacific power.”
And yet the United States is up to its neck once more in the Middle Eastern morass. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry spend little time in Asia. Few new initiatives have been announced. Despite the deal on “fast-track” authority, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that was at the heart of the pivot, faces congressional opposition, mostly from the president’s own party. The administration lobbied hard to get its closest allies to spurn China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, only to be rebuffed by everyone — even Britain.
The stability of the world will not rest on whether the Houthis win or lose in Yemen. (Yemen has been in a state of almost constant conflict since 1962.) It will be shaped by how the world’s established superpower handles the rising one, China. As Harvard’s Graham Allison has noted, of the 15 cases since 1500 where this transition has taken place, 11 times the result was a war.
Most of the attention of the pivot has been focused on deterring China. This is a necessary and important component of maintaining peace and stability. That’s why the United States has wisely and properly enhanced its security cooperation with Japan, Australia, the Philippines and other countries.
But an excellent new academic volume, “The Next Great War?: The Roots of World War I and the Risk of US-China Conflict,” co-edited by Richard Rosecrance and Steven Miller, highlights that, in addition to deterrence, the United States also needs to work hard at cooperation — at integrating China into the global system.
On this front, Washington gets poor marks so far. China is now the world’s second-largest economy — the largest measured by purchasing-power parity. And yet, its voting share in the International Monetary Fund is equivalent to that of the Netherlands and Belgium combined. Congress — mostly because of Republican opposition — refuses to pass legislation that would change this, even though it would not reduce America’s voting share in the IMF.
The Obama administration’s opposition to the Asian infrastructure bank was, quite simply, dumb. The bank is one more way to fund infrastructure projects in Asia — where the need for more money for such projects is immense. If China can’t set up a regional bank to fund bridges, what influence is it legitimately allowed to have? Of course, having chosen to oppose the bank, the Obama administration then ended up with the worst of all worlds — being defeated in its ill-chosen fight.
China has a strategy for now: economic development within the international system and a steadily enlarging sphere of influence in the region. In an interview this week with the Financial Times’ Lionel Barber, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sounded remarkably conciliatory and cooperative. Yet his government is reclaiming land and building an airstrip on the disputed Spratly Islands, creating what the Pentagon has called “facts on the water,” according to the New York Times.
Washington has a strong hand. It remains the dominant rule-setting power in a way that really has never existed in history. It is militarily in a league of its own. It has more than 50 treaty allies. China has North Korea. But some of this can cause its own problems. Rosecrance points out that allies can be both a blessing and a complication. It was the many smaller allies doing foolish things that dragged the major powers into World War I. The declining Habsburg Empire’s recklessness might well be the most important cause of that war. Could a Japan that is slowly sliding downward (and has a dysfunctional, hostile relationship with China) play a similar role in the future? Rosecrance simply cautions that the United States keep in mind that its interests are never identical with those of its allies.
The Obama administration needs to start believing in its own grand strategy. Let the Iraqis and Saudis feud, let Yemen continue in its five-decade-long civil war, let Iran waste resources in Syria. Washington should focus its energies, attention and efforts on Asia.
© 2015, THE WASHINGTON POST WRITER’S GROUP