The Diplomat’s Editor Harry Kazianis recently spoke with noted author and president of Eurasia Group, Ian Bremmer, about President Obama’s recent trip to Southeast Asia, how tensions in the Middle East could affect America’s renewed focus on Asia and China’s future.
1. This week President Obama and senior members of his foreign policy team visited a series of nations in Southeast Asia including Burma. Many have argued that with ethnic tensions still unresolved, the Obama administration has moved too fast to restore relations and trade. Some have also argued the administrations moves have had more to do with China than Burma itself. What is your take?
During his trip to Myanmar earlier this week, Obama made the trek to the home of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, where she had spent more than two decades under house arrest. While the White House was still planning the trip, she cautioned the administration against visiting Myanmar at all, urging Obama not to be lured by the “mirage of success.” So why would Obama make it a priority to visit a country whose national hero warned him not to do it—a trip that could come back to bite him if the reform process goes south?
It’s because Obama’s trip through Southeast Asia is all about China. The Obama “doctrine,” to the extent that there is one, is the pivot to Asia…and the use of economic statecraft, as originally coined by Hillary Clinton. Both center on the rise of China and the potential challenges that come with it, especially if China doesn’t align its behavior with international norms. There’s a security and an economic component. Aiming to add Thailand to the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a potential free trade agreement of like minded countries that could serve as a counterweight to China’s regional economic dominance— and removing sanctions on Burma are actions that the United States is taking through this China lens.
2. Tensions have been rising in the Middle East with fears that hostilities between Hamas and Israel could escalate further, even as the standoff between the U.S. and Iran continues. Do these problems in the Middle East doom the administration’s so-called ‘pivot’ to Asia? In an era of constrained resources, can America focus on problems in the Middle East while also demonstrating a stronger commitment in the Asia-Pacific?
Conflict in the Middle East certainly has the potential to distract the administration, and not only the United States, of course, but a range of other countries as well. But regardless of the state of play on the ground in the Middle East, the United States is going to play a comparatively diminished role in the region—especially in the context of what we’ve seen over the past ten years, with occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Going forward, expect a “lighter footprint,” which is part of the reason we’re going to see more conflict. The U.S. is out of Iraq and not going back in; it will not commit forces to Syria. Washington is doing everything possible to avoid military strikes in Iran. The fact that Obama did not cancel the aforementioned Southeast Asia trip in light of events in Israel/Gaza shows how serious this Asia pivot has become. That’s the direction we’re heading.
And don’t expect any other foreign power to fill the leadership void. The rest of the West is maximally distracted with internal issues. The Chinese, whose stake in the region is growing as a result of their energy needs, are not at the stage of development where they would be willing to pick up the baton.