In 2011, the Obama Administration announced a “pivot to Asia” . Like most new foreign policies, the transition was publicized more like a monumental event. That lasted a few days and then the news media forgot all about it.
As subsequent events have unfolded, the “pivot” was prescient change in national policy.
Initially the “pivot” was looked at as a “no brainer” by those who had had their fill of the Middle East morass. While most Americans understood the invasion of Afghanistan, in hot pursuit of al Qaeda, the combination of occupying Afghanistan indefinitely and incomprehensibly invading and occupying Iraq were mind boggling. Mixing these military follies in with the intractable Israeli-Palestinian situation, the endless barbarian acts of violence by Hezbollah and Hamas, and the completely obscene violence between Shiites and Sunnis, the Middle East looked clearly like a place the US should not be. But why Asia?
It is often said that armies fight the last war when ever they go into battle. Dick Cheney’s warnings (with his fellow chicken hawks – Richard Pearle, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, and Doug Feith) of Iraq’s WMD thinly obscured their real quest for oil access. The last decade has shown the depth of their mistaken views.
Fast forward to 2013. The Middle East is no less dysfunctional and arguably more so. Senseless killings go on as if they were a natural part of life. Oil, however, is no longer an issue with the US on a path to energy independence. And, guess what, Asia is showing signs of strategic misalignments that could threaten world commerce. As in most dysfunction, the Asian root causes are not fully transparent.
China, who has transformed its economy over the last 20 years in almost miraculous terms, has also shown signs of complete blindness to the current age or the role a world leader must play. Apparently at the heart of China’s behavior is a return to a period 5000 years ago when China ruled all of southeast Asia. While Chinese history is magnificent, the intervening centuries put in question many Chinese assumptions.
China, never the less, has incredibly claimed the entire South China Sea as within their sovereign territory even though other countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all lie on the South China Sea and logically have equal reasons to claim parts of the sea. In a power vacuum where the US was tied up in the Middle East, China represents the biggest dog in the pack.
Obama’s pivot can now be seen as a strategically important move. The pivot, however, is not a free lunch. The countries involved eye the South China Sea both from a sovereign perspective as well as, you guessed it, a source of valuable oil and minerals. Nationalism and greed do not lead usually to sensible and responsible negotiations over dividing their joint potential wealth.
Now China has upped the anti. It has declared a large section of the South China Sea as part of its national air defense. Accordingly anyone (US included) traversing this zone must first file flight plan with or otherwise notify China. Not surprisingly, China’s neighbors and the US have said no way.
As a first step this represents a risk to open seas and potentially to war itself.
News reports have been sparse and relegated to the middle pages. It is also not clear how this confrontation is going to work out. What is clear is that Asia and in particular an overly ambitious China (with over a million people) could rouse nationalistic irrationalities which dominated the early 20th century.
Putting Congresses behavior in the mix of an uncertain world, President Obama is standing tall, at least among pigmies. Asia is a different (from the Middle East) but an equally difficult to understand region. It should be clear that military force will not win the day in Asia anymore than in the Middle East.
The positive news is that President Obama has at least focused the US attention on the right region. The responsibilities Congress truly has must show through and support the commander in chief in this difficult world situation. If Congress chooses to undertake more “just say no” tactics, the Asian world could go up in flames before we know what’s happening.