Against the East Asia 'pivot'

Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard toast during the Parliamentary Dinner at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, Nov. 16, 2011. Australia is one of the members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Article Highlights

  • To compete with China in East Asia, we must retain our influence in the Middle East and South Asia

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  • Our allies and China need to see and feel our presence

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  • Since China is bound by no important arms control treaties, it has every reason to seek nuclear parity with us over time

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There has been much ado in the media and from the Obama administration about a great strategic shift from the Middle East and South Asia to East Asia. Obama and senior administration officials are making the case for this shift by claiming that we have accomplished our Iraq and Afghanistan goals, and that the time has come to focus on the "real problem": China. This week, the president announced the basing of 2,500 marines in Australia and a pushed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional free trade agreement that excludes China. The U.S. military has also released some details on its new Air Sea battle concept -- an answer to the dense network of submarines, mines, anti-aircraft capabilities, and missiles that China has created to keep the United States out of China's periphery. All of these moves are to be commended. However, they do not and should not add up to a new "pivot." Here are some reasons why:

1) There is no way for the U.S. to project the necessary influence into East Asia if Aghanistan and Pakistan are on fire. One major reason is that if India is tied down in a competition with Pakistan, China, and Iran in Afghanistan, it cannot become the kind of East Asian power we wish it to be. The Bush administration's India strategy was designed to help India break out of its squabbles in South Asia and exert influence in East Asia. A hasty pull-out of Aghanistan will reverse that sensible strategy.

2) China is exercising more influence in the Middle East in ways harmful to our larger goals (e.g., support of Iran). To compete with China in East Asia, we must retain our influence in the Middle East and South Asia and check destabilizing Chinese diplomacy.

3) The deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia and the highlighting of a military concept to respond to China's military build-up are necessary but insufficient first steps. These developments cannot make up for the fact that our military has faced deep cuts in its budget and will face more. No matter what administration officials say, these cuts will affect our posture in Asia profoundly. We need more ships, more aircraft, more missile defense. To be a bit flippant, we are putting Marines in Australia without sufficient equipment to get out of Australia. Our allies and China need to see and feel our presence. That can only be accomplished with more sea patrols, surges in exercises that promote freedom of navigation, and so on.

4) The Air Sea battle concept is a serious effort to meet the China challenge. But based on information released about it, the concept suffers from two flaws. First, the resource question -- how would we shut down Chinese military operations without sufficient platforms and munitions? Second, Air Sea battle fails to take into account China's nuclear ambitions. China is already a nuclear-armed country with every incentive to continue its build-up of nuclear forces. That is because we have agreed on a bilateral (with Russia) rather than multilateral basis to cap our nuclear forces. Since China is bound by no important arms control treaties, and because we are openly talking about major conventional strikes on the Mainland, China has every reason to seek nuclear parity with us over time.

5) The TPP is a great idea. In particular, securing Japanese agreement to an FTA would be a great success . The question is, are we serious? It took the better part of Obama's term to ratify the FTA with South Korea. Are we really to believe that he will take on his base and sign more major FTAs?

There is no dispute that we need to take serious steps to balance China's power. But we cannot do so by "pivoting" away from two critical areas of the world. We need India to have peaceful borders in order to compete with China, and we need to diminish China's influence in the Middle East. And finally, the Obama Administration needs to resource its stated Asia strategy, which it so far shows little sign of doing. 

Daniel Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI

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