Pivot to Asia: As Syria Burns, Chuck Hagel’s Visit Reminds Us That The Pivot Is Underway

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, center, chains his hands with his counterparts from Vietnam, right, and Thailand before the ASEAN meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, on Thursday. The trip’s message: The U.S. is committed to its “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific region.

I’m probably not the first one to notice these things, but did anyone notice where Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense, was while the U.S. deliberated a military strike on Syria? He’s home now, but Secretary Hagel had been on a tour of the Asia Pacific, building ties with his regional counterparts and other senior defense leaders. His tour of the region is part of a larger strategy that the Obama Administration has dubbed the “pivot” to Asia in 2011. To get an idea of what that word means, Foreign Policy ran an article by Hillary Clinton a few years ago that spells out the Administration’s rationale. It is becoming more clear as to what this pivot actually is, and what it means for the largest country in the region, China.

Although the U.S. has withdrawn combat forces from Iraq and is beginning to wind down our military involvement in Afghanistan, recent turmoil in the MENA region (Syria, Egypt, take your pick there are lots) are only buzzword examples that prove that we are not leaving the Middle East. Pakistan, a nuclear power, has a complicated relationship with us (highlighted by the raid on bin Laden’s Abbotabad hideout), and the fear of greater political instability and a conflict with their rival India is always just over the horizon. Iran also inches closer to a nuclear weapon. So let’s dissolve the illusion that we’re leaving the Middle East. Do I have to reference Michael Corleone here?

So to be clear, we’re not leaving the Middle East and moving everything we have into Asia (because even if we try, it will pull us back in anyway). But it is important to realize that there is more to the world than the Middle East, and that U.S. interests in Asia are grounded in a geographical reality. A popular image surfaced on the internet recently, with a circle over a section of Asia that reads “There are more people living inside this circle than outside of it.”

A little over 50% (51.4% based off what I pulled together from the U.S. Census Bureau’s numbers) of the entire world’s population live inside that circle. This reality itself is enough to argue that a rising Asia would be foolish to ignore. Another reality that is shouldn’t be ignored is the fact that more than half of this circle is water. And it just so happens that this circled water is very important.

Let’s look at the map again, this time with country borders and names of bodies of water for reference.

Look at India. The Indian Ocean serves as a major energy highway; oil and natural gas from the Arabian Sea via the Persian Gulf to the rising middle-class in East Asia and beyond. The Indian Ocean also connects trade routes that utilize the Suez Canal in Egypt, allowing ships to pass into the Red Sea, then the Gulf of Aden passing the Horn of Africa (Somalia) the Arabian Sea, into the Indian Ocean, and onward to the archipelagos of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.

Let’s look at the map again. Find the South China Sea. The South China Sea itself is allegedly rich in offshore hydrocarbon reserves. Moreover it is the major international sphere of commerce. And you can argue whatever you wish, but a key underpinning of the majority of Post Cold-War global growth has been the U.S. Navy and Air Force. 90% of all goods in global commerce utilize the world’s sea lanes. The U.S. has kept these vital sea lanes open and secure for the global commons for half a century. When you take into account the fact that roughly half of that 90% figure runs through the South China Sea, the region’s importance to the global economy is difficult to push aside.

All over South and Southeast Asia their coasts are blessed with many deep water ports, and like most countries, a great deal of their populations hug the coastlines. It’s simple mathematics: safer sealanes = safer economy = safer society (notice my language, I didn’t say “safe,” I just said “safer”. It’s not always good, but it could always be worse.)

But the elephant in the room on this pivot (or should I say, dragon?) is China. Let’s take a quick look at the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through the lens of this “pivot to Asia”.

Chinese Strategy, Priorities: The Art of War
Chinese defense planners face a complicated situation, where geography plays a major role in their calculus (the map from before helps a lot here). Geographical challenges include but are not limited to:

1) land borders with more than a dozen countries (including proximity to nuclear powers in Russia, Pakistan and India), 2) island nations surrounding its eastern seaboard (thereby naturally challenging its access to the sea), 3) and ongoing island and maritime disputes with its neighbors (notably with Japan and the Philippines).

Coupled with China’s last ~100 years of economic and military inferiority which they attribute to Western imperialism and the Unequal Treaties , we can assess that although currently limited in particular military capabilities, their goals and strategy consists of consistently-defined objectives since their slow and deliberate rise to power starting in 1978.

It is for reasons outlined above that China’s primary concern about the pivot is encirclement. The U.S. presently maintains troops and/or security commitments with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia; it sells armaments to Taiwan and is bolstering relations with Myanmar and Vietnam, all of which (with the exception of Australia) were historically tributary states and were seen as an extension of mainland China. China was the regional hegemon in their glory days, as we are in the Western Hemisphere.

Chinese culture values actions and gestures over words. How can they not see the U.S.“rebalance”/“pivot” to Asia nothing other than military encirclement? They fear encirclement much that the objective of the world’s oldest and most sophisticated board game, Weiqi, is precisely that: encirclement. Weiqi is also based on the central tenents of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Sun Tzu’s maxims – deception, flexibility, sudden, unexpected moves and gradually creating situations that best achieve political objectives–is a more holistic approach to warfare that differs from the American paradigm of warfare. For the Chinese, the art of war should not be limited to the battlefield.

Evidence from Chinese history and current events suggests that the PRC is adjusting accordingly, and have strategically placed their Weiqi pieces in various parts of the globe to counter and circumvent ours. Chinese expansion of investment abroad plays a vital role in its grand strategy. In total GNP, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has hurdled ahead of Germany and Japan, and now ranks second in the world. The recent assessment according to the National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) Global Trends: 2030 (if you have time, read the whole thing) predicts the PRC eventually overtaking the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. Massive foreign investment in Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe have paid significant dividends in access to raw materials, economic development and enhancing Beijing’s status as a world power. It’s also becoming pretty clear that China aims to operate its Navy further afield. China has and continues tofund
the building of ports
all along the Indian Ocean, in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya and the Horn. These projects, like the one in Gwadar all have their unique business underpinnings by Chinese companies, and they are certainly tailored to the individual area. But taken together they also make what the Chinese call a “string of pearls,” commercial ventures whereby political influence can eventually be exerted. Don’t believe me? Google “East India Company”.

However, China’s rise has not been without consequences. Every day it is becoming clearer that the Chinese economic miracle is coming to a halt; it’s not really surprising though. I’d love for 10% annual growth for every country, but that kind of growth for any country is simply unsustainable. Other proliferating domestic challenges are also expected to test the PRC’s national spending priorities with which the military may have difficulty competing for. The demand for social spending because of China’s slowing birthrate, aging society and pollution, coupled with the widely-predicted slowdown in economic growth, will force PRC leaders to face the large opportunity costs and trade-offs concerning defense spending. The situation is likely to exacerbate with rising income inequality, ethno-religious tensions in the borderlands, and the political system’s uncertain future; expenditures with a focus on domestic security are more likely. China’s domestic instability has been primary concern of China’s leaders for centuries, and it may worsen in the future–particularly if there is less economic growth that has so far legitimized the CCP’s grip on power. Their numbers are pretty opaque and PRC leadership will have to come up with some kind of comprehensive reforms to keep China unified. Either way, if China destabilizes or if it grows stronger and continues to grow militarily, it pays for us to be there; in the case of the former to help respond to potential regional crises and in the case of the latter to balance the dragon with the eagle.

The U.S. has been rejecting the charge that we seek to “contain” China. The pivot may not be containment, but the rise of any great power must be managed and must be balanced against issues like an increasingly nationalistic Japan and the rise of Indian sea power. Ideally the U.S. would like to see an Asian power web, whereby more Asian states (China included) have greater economic, military and diplomatic cooperation with each other, as well as with the U.S. These interrelationships will probably balance each other out, and balance against a rising China and miscalculations that can bode ill for regional stability. So it’s not all about China…But it just so happens that all of the arguments for a pivot start and end with China…

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