It has been two years since the Obama administration announced its strategic pivot to Asia. After having watched the United States lose a decade, bogged down in the Middle East, while the global balance of wealth and power was shifting dramatically to the Far East – especially to China – the president realized the time had come to reprioritize American foreign policy. It was an idea of historic importance, about which the administration could not have been more correct – and it is therefore deeply troubling that so few significant steps have been taken to make it a reality.
Two years on, American foreign policy is as obsessed as ever with marginal Middle Eastern states. While China grows into a colossus, near equal to the United States itself, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry focus on Syria, a nation whose entire gross domestic product is only 70 billion dollars, less than that of New Mexico.
The president has let his reasonable desire to end a humanitarian catastrophe and uphold the international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, overshadow the difficult truth that no viable method exists to achieve such a goal. The Middle East has proven time and again to be a virtual black hole when it comes to the application of hard power. Only the willingness to continually apply force offers hope of achieving a desired outcome, and the American people have already concluded that such a cost overwhelmingly outweighs the potential benefits.
Such inattention to Asia is unjustifiable. The region will not sleep simply because America turns the other way.
With the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property reporting that American firms lose more than 100 billion dollars annually to Chinese cyber-theft, one wonders if this is the same Obama who once declared “the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving my highest priority… creating jobs and opportunity for the American people.” If cyber-theft continues unabated, the advantage American firms hold in high technology will soon erode, and the long-term costs of declining market share will be devastating.
Now, with the People’s Liberation Army actively targeting American weapons manufacturers, China, a state once known for cheap, unskilled labor, has become the world’s second largest producer of drones, including a veritable knock-off of the American Predator drone. And, unlike the United States, which employs drones for reconnaissance and counter-terrorism purposes, China’s designs reportedly focus on diminishing American power projection capabilities in the South China Sea.
Between cyber-espionage and China’s routine double-digit annual increases in military expenditures, the advantage the United States once held in military capacity is quickly diminishing – particularly in the Asia pacific region – and the results are visible in China’s new, more bellicose foreign policy. Today, China opts for displays of naval power rather than multilateral diplomacy, in pushing maritime disputes with such American allies as the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan.
Then there is North Korea. This unstable, poverty-stricken dictatorship, run by a 31 year old with a million-man standing army and nuclear weapons at his disposal, dwarfs the threat posed by Iran, a state still learning how to enrich uranium. In April of this year after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un threatened to turn Washington into a “sea of fire”, the U.S., still heavily focused on the Middle East, scrambled to deploy missile defense systems to Guam.
As tensions rise and nationalism returns, Asia is developing disturbing similarities to early 20th century Europe. While the Philippines is courting the return of American naval vessels, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is issuing calls for collective security, the president’s decision to remain aloof – symbolized by cutting short, for the third time, his upcoming trip to the region – lacks sober realism. Forcing our allies to choose between accommodating an increasingly assertive China or entering an arms race, can only result in diminishing America’s global stature. We can continue to overlook this region, but only at our own peril.
Stravato is an MS candidate in International Relations at New York University, and the director of a Taiwan-based investment firm.