For the past several months, the United States has been busy promoting its “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions. Free from conflict in Iraq, and with the winding down of its involvement in Afghanistan apparently accelerating, the U.S. now has more freedom to focus its strategic muscle on this dynamic part of the world. Through pronouncements in the press, and with some carefully crafted diplomatic and strategic jockeying, the United States is gradually reasserting itself in the region.
Such a shift is no surprise to anyone who has been following recent geopolitical events. Militarily, the United States made its intentions clear in the 2007 Maritime Strategy report under the George W. Bush administration. While still engaged in two wars in the Middle East, U.S security planners were still crafting a change of strategy well before the withdrawal of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan had been finalized.
In March 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all but declared that a new game was afoot. “We are in a competition for influence with China,” she told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Let’s put aside the humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in. Let's just talk straight realpolitik. We are in competition with China.”
Such a shift makes sense for a number of reasons. The Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions are home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies. With America’s precarious economic position, gaining access to such markets offers the prospect of more American jobs and a boost to a still sluggish economy.
But it’s hard to escape the reality that China is the key reason for the U.S. refocusing. With the United States having spent the better part of the last decade fighting conflicts in the Middle East, China has meanwhile gone to great lengths to enhance its strategic position in East Asia. Beijing has steadily increased its armed forces budget over the last decade. With its advances in anti-access weapons and asymmetrical arms, U.S. forces are, according to one scholar, “On the wrong side of physics.” While U.S. military forces outgun their Chinese rivals, recent studies suggest China’s military budget will double by 2015, meaning a China-centric strategy makes sense.
Still, it’s important not to overstate the speed with which the U.S. pivot – and the associated China concerns – have taken place. The fact is that U.S. -China tensions aren’t exactly new. Indeed, seemingly lost in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks is the fact that the United States and China faced off in the Taiwan Strait in 1996 and in 2001 over an aircraft collision near Hainan Island. In The Diplomat last May, Frank Ching correctly pointed out, “Bush himself had already repudiated the Clinton administration’s policy of forging a strategic partnership with China, calling Beijing a strategic competitor, rather than a strategic partner.” Several days after the return of its EP-3 surveillance crew, the U.S. offered Taiwan a massive arms package. With tensions brewing “shifts in attitudes in both nations seem to be pointing to a showdown.”