The United States is refocusing on Asia, as a string of White House officials from President Barack Obama downwards have made abundantly clear. Moreover, Asia’s prioritization comes in spite of savage defense cuts. While the U.S. military – and mainly the Army and the Marines – must absorb $487 billion in cutbacks over the next decade, the program of re-engaging with Asia will be given pride of place in the Pentagon’s policy agenda.
However, the rhetoric about the United States’ Asian comeback glosses over the fact that in large parts of Asia, the United States is facing a serious loss of influence. Even worse, this is happening in the parts of Asia that really matter to American security.
Not so long ago, Central Asia was the cockpit of U.S. foreign policy, and CENTCOM the U.S. military command that mattered. Now, the United States’ post-9/11 gains in Central Asia are close to being wiped away. Having failed to retain any kind of presence in Iraq, the United States is beginning to draw down in Afghanistan; a long-term U.S. presence there is now arguably less likely than the reformation of a Taliban government.
In Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. military presence is unlikely to endure beyond the expiration of the current lease on the Manas air base in 2014. The country’s new president, Almazbek Atambayev, has said he plans to close the base, and he will probably stay truer to his word on this sensitive issue than his persuadable predecessors. Last month, Russia finally slammed the door on the possibility of U.S. Central Asian involvement, cajoling the CSTO into agreeing that no foreign military base could be established on any member state’s territory without the consent of the other members. Russia has always bridled at the U.S. military presence in its Central Asian backyard, and it’s close to realizing its goal of seeing all U.S. troops there pack up and leave.
In Pakistan, the United States has already been evicted from the Shamsi airbase, from which it used to launch drone strikes against militant targets in Pakistan’s tribal belt. The relationship with Islamabad may now, finally, be broken – and the incentive to mend it is no longer so strong. The withdrawal from Afghanistan greatly diminishes Pakistan’s relevance as a partner; and the United States can’t continue to funnel military aid to a country that values China as an ally more than the U.S. itself. Apart from retaining a limited interest in Pakistan’s nuclear security, Washington’s torturous involvement in the country could soon be over.
The United States has effectively been outmaneuvered in Central Asia by Russia, Iran, China, the Taliban and Pakistani military intelligence.
From a security perspective, this is a grave development. Balancing against China in the Pacific by boosting ties with the likes of Singapore and the Philippines is reasonable enough, but the major threats to American security aren’t going to come from the South China Sea. War with China is really just a bottom-drawer contingency: it’ll never happen. In the next decade, the threat to American lives is more likely to emanate from Afghanistan and Pakistan, just as it did in the last decade; or from Tajikistan, whose government is failing to contain a range of jihadist insurgencies; or from restive areas of Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan.
With the imagination of the American electorate increasingly captured by the rise of China, talk of re-engaging with the Asia-Pacific might make for smart politics in the run-up to a presidential poll. But when it comes to snuffing out the enduring threat of Islamist extremists, stationing Marines in Australia won’t make up for the dangerous disappearance of American influence in Central Asia.