During the presidency of George W. Bush, and in particular since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Southeast Asian diplomats representing Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia were complaining that Washington seemed to be pre-occupied, if not obsessed with the crises in the Greater Middle East and that it wasn’t investing enough time and resources in dealing with the Asia-Pacific region. What about China?
In way, America’s response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, including the costly military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the failed nation-building and democracy-promotion crusades in the Middle East, damaged US global security interests and played directly into China’s hands.
The Americans were being drawn into a long and costly military quagmire in the Middle East, just as the US financial system was being challenged and the American economy was plummeting into a major recession.
At the same time, the Chinese who had joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) on December 11, 2001, exactly three months after 9/11, could continue strengthening their booming economy and were provided with an opportunity to advance their economic and military agenda in East Asia.
Ironically, American military presence in the Middle East, was helping to secure Chinese access to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf, which amounted to a form of free American security services for China in the region.
In a way, one could have made the argument that by the time the US and its allies would be able to defeat Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist terrorist groups, it would be China, and not the militarily exhausted and financially strained US that would emerge as the winner in the war on terrorism and as the hegemon in East Asia. The war on terror ended – and China won.
Southeast Asian observes would also note that on several occasions US leaders, focusing on managing this or that crisis in the Middle East, weren’t even able to travel to regional summits organized by Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Hence when former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice ended up skipping the annual ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial-level dialogue on July 29, 2005, in Laos’ capital Vientiane, flying instead to Lebanon to try to bring an end to the war there, the move that was considered a setback for US efforts to persuade Southeast Asians that Washington really cared about their region.
So when Bush II left town and President Barack Obama arrived in Washington in 2009 things were supposed to change.
Obama, who was born in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood years in Indonesia, was being described as the first “Pacific” US President, insisted that he was committed to start reversing or “rebalancing” Washington’s geostrategic focus from the Middle East and towards East and South Asia.
First, he has taken steps to disengage the US from the mess in the Middle East, starting with his decision to withdraw US ground troops from Iraq while strongly resisting pressure from the foreign policy establishment in Washington to launch a military intervention in Syria to bring an end to the civil war in that country.
In addition, the Obama Administration was doing everything in its power to reduce the costs of American involvement in the Middle East, by accommodating what it had seen as the forces of change of the “Arab Spring” even if that meant abandoning long-time military allies like former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
And it also embraced a policy of diplomatic detente vis-a-vis Iran, negotiating a deal with Tehran that resulted in the suspension of its nuclear military program, and thus averted a potential military confrontation with that Middle Eastern country.
At the same time, Obama’s new focus on East Asia was highlighted when his administration announced in 2012 its “Pivot to East Asia.” As part of this strategy, the administration promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement linking the US and 11 Pacific-Rim countries which was signed in 2015, and improved bilateral economic and military ties with Japan, India, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations, while continuing to pursue a policy of engagement with China.
And President Obama found the time to fly to the annual ASEAN summits, and even invited the 10 member nations to meet in the US for the first time in Ranch Mirage, California, in February 2016. It was billed as an “historic summit” during which several new business initiatives were announced.
But when President Obama left Washington a year later, it became clear that things didn’t work out as the “Pacific” President had hoped.
That the “Pivot” failed to achieve it main goals has to do, in part, with its lack of strategic coherence and consistency, and the growing sense in Beijing that it was part of a US policy directed against it. That ended up producing tensions between Washington and Beijing while creating anxiety over a possible Sino-American clash among America’s allies in the region.
President Obama may have also understated the growing anti-globalization sentiments among Americans and their representatives on Capitol Hill which made impossible to pass TPP in Congress, and if anything, helped propel the populist presidential campaigns of both Republican Donald Trump and of Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders.
But among the main challenge facing President Obama’s East Asia-centric initiative is fundamental issue that reflects the reality of post-Cold War American foreign policy: The US cannot disengage from the Middle East and is probably not going to do that anytime soon.
In fact, by the time the White House convened the summit with the ASEAN governments in California, the Obama Administration was in the process of reasserting its military commitments in Iraq in response to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in that country and in neighbouring Syria and was launching a new round of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In fact, much of the foreign debate in Washington in the second term of the Obama presidency was fixated with the Middle East, on whether to approve the nuclear deal with Iran and to intervene militarily in the civil war in Syria; and in that context, with the strained relationship with Russia.
It was not that the US was rebalancing its policy back to the Middle East. The Americans, and in particular, members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment have remained stuck in the Middle East, where they are finding themselves today.
In a way, Washington has been operating on a foreign policy autopilot since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet threat in the Middle East. It remained committed to the axiom that it is obligated to secure the balance of power in the region, and was being pressed by domestic interest groups as well as by partners abroad to increase its military and diplomatic presence there.
Indeed, President Trump who like his predecessor had campaigned for the presidency by pledging to reduce US military commitments in the Middle East, may reach the same conclusion President Obama had arrived at the end of his second term, that getting out of the Middle East is a mission impossible.
The evolving cold war between Iran and its Shiite proxies and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies, where Israel is finding itself on the Arab-Sunni side and renewal of the tensions between Washington and Tehran over its nuclear military ambitions, not to mention the continuing political instability in the Middle East – and let’s not forget, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process” – will ensure that the re-balancing towards East Asia will never take place, and that one in Washington will be able to answer the following question: What about China?