In November of 2012, just 10 days after being re-elected for a second term, U.S. President Barack Obama boarded Air Force One and headed to Yangon, Myanmar. The rapprochement and normalization of relations between the United States and the once pariah state Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, had escalated rapidly in the latter part of his first term. The United States sought to counter China’s growing influence over the strategically located and resource friendly Southeast Asian nation and to accelerate a bold new vision for the entire region.
The engagement with Myanmar was a small piece of what Obama and his foreign policy team referred to as a strategic “pivot” to Asia.
The genesis behind the pivot to Asia was framed as a strategic re-balancing of U.S. resources and priorities toward the world’s most populous continent, which would likely be the epicenter of the most important global affairs of the 21st century. Having long had strong relationships with Japan and South Korea, the United States sought to have a more comprehensive Asia-Pacific strategy that included engaging more with Southeast Asian nations as a means of containing China’s growing assertiveness in the region. The United States wanted to show China that it would compete economically, diplomatically, and militarily on its own turf. Additionally, the pivot would help disentangle the United States from the Middle East, where it had been bogged down for nearly a decade in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Legacy Costs of Two Decades in the Middle East
The Obama’s administration’s pivot hit potholes almost immediately after the new grand strategy was put in place. The emergence of new iterations of global terrorist organizations ranging from al-Qaida to the Islamic State, along with a burgeoning civil war in Syria, meant that the United States still had to focus a considerable amount of time and resources on a region where it was already managing two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moreover, the Obama administration sought to stake its foreign policy legacy on brokering a nuclear deal with Iran, which ended up taking a substantial amount of political and diplomatic capital. That resulted in the sidelining of other pressing strategic priorities.
During the Obama administration the United States did officially join the East Asia Summit (EAS) for the first time, which raised eyebrows in Beijing and signaled a greater focus on strategic dialogue with partners in the region. Additionally, the Obama administration established a framework for a comprehensive trade pact to counter China in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, the TPP was not formalized before the 2016 election and it ended up becoming a casualty of domestic politics and shifting priorities of the new administration. The failure to finalize the TPP and the administration’s singular focus on securing a nuclear deal with Iran at the expense of other strategic priorities ended up minimizing the impact of Obama’s famed pivot to Asia.
Trump and Unilateralism
Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, came into power promising a much tougher approach to China. In his first days in office he had his economic team draw up plans to add tariffs to Chinese products and demanded that China increase the amount of goods it purchased from the United States. The confrontational approach escalated tensions between the two superpowers, with China adding its own tariffs to many U.S. imports as well.
Trump eschewed multilateralism, rendered the TPP dead on arrival, and pursued a transactional-based foreign policy approach toward adversaries and allies alike. In terms of policy initiatives in the region, the Trump administration did pass the 2018 Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which granted $1.5 billion in spending for programs countering China in East and Southeast Asia.
While Trump had promised to end the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, those wars still waged on during his presidency. Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and later ordered the assassination of Qassim Soleimani, arguably the most powerful military figure in Iran. While Trump confronted China head-on via economic statecraft, the signature foreign policy achievement of his presidency was not in Asia, but in the Middle East. The Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between several key Arab States and Israel, was an important step forward toward peace in the volatile region.
However, Trump’s presidency left many unanswered questions in the Asia-Pacific region, ranging from North Korea’s nuclear program to China’s increasing belligerence toward Taiwan and the South China Sea. While unsettling China with his unpredictable rhetoric and actions, Trump was unable able to establish a strategic framework that would counter China’s long-term hegemonic goals in the region.
Biden and the Return of Transatlanticism
President Joe Biden came into power with what he thought was a mandate to shore up old alliances, specifically NATO post Trump, and to reinvigorate the transatlantic relationship as a means of organizing against the threats to the global world order. There was some hope based on how he built out his foreign policy team that Asia would be front-and-center in terms of strategic priorities and that they would take a more muscular posture toward China than the Obama administration. This included appointing one of the chief architects of the TPP, Kurt Campbell, to a new newly created position of “Asia czar” in one of Biden’s first days in office.
However, a year into Biden’s presidency, the United States is not only back in the Middle East, where Biden’s foreign policy team is slogging away trying to resuscitate the Iran nuclear agreement and dealing with the after effects of a bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan, but also it has to manage a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine, which threatens to become the most significant geopolitical event since the end of World War II. The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the international order will likely have knock-on effects that will require attention and support from the United States for many years to come.
Consequently, the United States will have to be ambidextrous in pursuing its global strategic priorities in order to help bolster European and NATO allies facing a belligerent and menacing Russia while still at the same time pursuing vitally important priorities in Asia. The now delayed release of the 2022 National Defense Strategy report will no doubt reflect these new realities. The global international order is being reshaped in front of our eyes, and the focus of the world is not on Asia during what is supposed to be the “Asian Century” but rather on a hot war in Europe.
A New (Old) Cold War and the End of the Pivot?
The ultimate beneficiary of the United States’ inability to strategically “pivot” to Asia is China. Every minute that the United States spends political, economic, or military capital outside of Asia, China is increasing its hegemonic power in the region. A prolonged military conflict between Russia and Ukraine will tap an inordinate amount of economic and geopolitical capital, which will inevitably push China and Asia-Pacific priorities to the sidelines.
In a sign of this stark new geopolitical reality, China and the Asia-Pacific region were barely mentioned in Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address. Additionally, the United States recently canceled a planned summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which was supposed to focus on strengthening economic and security ties. These two decisions, reflecting changing geopolitical priorities, would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
Confronting the strategic threats that China poses to the United States is a daunting task even if the United States is able to focus the appropriate strategic resources and attention. However, perhaps it was never truly possible for the world’s greatest superpower, with binding strategic alliances spanning the globe, to be able to have a laser-like focus on one region of the world. In that case, a true “pivot” to Asia was never really possible. The United States, whether it likes it or not, is still viewed as the world’s policeman and will naturally be brought into global affairs in a way that China will not.
However, if the 21st century is still going to be played out amid the backdrop of a China-U.S. rivalry, it is critically important that the United States remains acutely focused on its rival in the East – even as the international order is being challenged and the horrors of modern war are being seen up close and personal in the West.