“In the last decade,” wrote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the November 2011 Foreign Policy, “our foreign policy has transitioned from dealing with the post-Cold War peace dividend to demanding commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. As those wars wind down, we will need to accelerate efforts to pivot to new global realities” — namely, the growing strategic importance of Asia and the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Ah, the Washington establishment, the only circles in which “transition” is a verb and the 1990s are recalled as “dealing with the peace dividend.” The Clinton administration did reduce the Pentagon’s budget from its Reagan-era levels, but at no point during its tenure, according to the excellent Project on Defense Alternatives, did that budget dip below the nadirs of the Cold War years, 1956 and 1977. From 1998 onward, military spending rose. And, of course, the decade was inaugurated by the most spectacular display of US firepower to date, the bombing that began Operation Desert Storm, setting in motion the dynamic that led to that “demanding commitment” in Iraq.
But leave all of that aside for now. What is this “pivot” to Asia of which Washington’s top diplomat speaks?
Readers of such canonical opinion sheets as Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs will have noticed that the ascent of China has preoccupied American elites for some time, even at the height of post-September 11 hysteria. The pressing question is whether, as Beijing insists, that rise is peaceful. Not surprisingly, savants both Democrat and Republican doubt it. Before the September 11 attacks interrupted their reveries, in fact, the Bush administration’s big thinkers were absorbed by the prospect that China, or perhaps Russia, might in the future wish to unseat the United States as the world’s sole superpower. Even as the war on terror unfolded in the greater Middle East, the Bush administration tried to sneak in a little pre-positioning for envisioned showdowns with Russia and China, such as the gratuitous air bases in Uzbekistan (now closed) and Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, a crew of Pentagon-friendly Democrats established the Center for a New American Security in 2007 to push two propositions: Counterinsurgency, not conventional methods, would win the war on terror, and the Defense Department would nonetheless need to swivel its head toward Asia.
Given this consensus, news of the pending “pivot” was favorably received around Washington water coolers, at least at first. Soon, however, anxieties bubbled up. The term “pivot” was most regrettable, sober sorts agreed. It “implies turning your back on other crucial parts of the world,” complained conservative Daniel Blumenthal of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, also in Foreign Policy. “It is also unrealistic to think we can spend less time on the Middle East in order to spend more time in Asia for two reasons. First, the Chinese are competing with us in that critical region to mostly bad effect. Second, our allies depend on the stability we provide in the Middle East for oil.” (In the mid-1990s, just in case this background is relevant, Blumenthal was a researcher at AIPAC’s think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.) By the time it was ready to execute the “pivot,” the Obama administration had substituted the word “rebalancing.”
So far, the gravitation toward Asia has consisted entirely of military redeployments or the promise thereof. In June, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told an audience in Singapore that by 2020 the US Navy would station 60 percent of its fleet, including six aircraft carrier groups, in the Asian Pacific. The current proportion is 50 percent. Panetta then alighted in Vietnam and the Philippines, where he sought (and, from Manila, extracted) pledges that US warships could dock again at their Cold War moorings. His final stop was India. These countries, the mainstream press is wont to emphasize, share a mounting concern with China’s deeper and deeper sorties into the South China Sea, rich in fish and oil deposits. Beijing, however, must view the US “rebalancing” through a much wider lens.
Indeed, Washington’s move is intended not to protect the sites of its old imperial adventures but to keep the US ahead in the great game of the twenty-first century. The South China Sea, as Clinton stressed in her Foreign Policy essay, is home to shipping lanes vital to the global economy, in particular the Straits of Malacca passing between Malaysia and Indonesia to link the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. Though not as narrow as the Strait of Hormuz, the Straits of Malacca could in theory be blocked and are thus a chokepoint in the world oil supply. China knows the geography quite well; it explains why Beijing has pursued its “string of pearls” strategy of investing in ports along the South China Sea and Indian Ocean coasts all the way to Oman. To satisfy the energy demands of its ballooning cities and expanding middle class, China needs access to the plenteous hydrocarbons of South Sudan, Iran and the Arab Gulf states.
Hence the worries in Washington — how much time will pass before the petro-princedoms look mainly eastward rather than westward for patronage? Might China one day dispatch its own navy to secure a piece of the oil patch? US claims to world hegemony depend heavily on the idea that the US Navy will guard this treasure in perpetuity. It was needless and stupid, but the Iraq war was fought to preserve this notion. Today, the US squeezes the Islamic Republic of Iran and winks at the Saudi-led campaign of Arab counter-revolution in service of the same strategic goal.
The elite obsession with China has coincided with bouts of agitation over hints that US power is in overall decline. Thanks to the Reaganite restoration of the 2000s, there is no lack of muscle: In 2010, again according to the Project on Defense Alternatives, US military spending was $693.6 billion, an amount six times greater than the outlay of the closest competitor, China, and larger than China’s and the next 19 countries’ disbursements combined. But, with the US economy stuck in the doldrums, is this ratio sustainable? The present “sequestrations” will only slow the rate of growth in Pentagon allotments, not cut them, but no degree of proof could stop Republicans from accusing President Barack Obama of weakness in the face of empire’s challenges. Along with drone strikes, the “rebalancing” project is partly Obama’s riposte to this predictable charge.
The Democrats, however, are no less committed than their Republican rivals to the maintenance of US sole superpower status. “What we’re trying to do, frankly, is preserve our leadership,” Obama speechwriter and adviser Ben Rhodes told James Mann for his book The Obamians (2012). “We’re not trying to preside over America’s decline. What we’re trying to do is get America another 50 years as leader.” Rhodes is usually identified by journalists as one of the president’s more liberal angels, young, untouched by the “Vietnam syndrome,” but appalled by the excesses of the Bush presidency. The Obama White House, in Mann’s account, is guided jerkily forward by the impulses of such liberals and the graying, plodding politicians who supervise them (or, in the president’s case, inhabit another part of the same body). Their dilemma is acute: The tenets of “soft power” and fiscal prudence dictate retrenchment, while politics and “new global realities” point in the opposite direction. They preside, in all likelihood, over a state that retains its power, but cannot reconcile itself to the fact that hegemony was always an illusion.