The US cannot allow turmoil in the Middle East to distract it from the challenge of China's rise. The US's recent naval operations in the South China Sea seem to demonstrate Washington's intention to retain its East Asian leadership. Yet a lack of diplomatic focus on the region could cause the US to withdraw by default.
The Middle East currently dominates US foreign policy. The Iran Deal is still in its infancy and many in Washington remain suspicious of Tehran's nuclear and regional leadership ambitions. The Syrian civil war defies resolution and spawns a variety of new challenges, from Islamic State terrorism to millions of refugees. A Third Intifada is threatening to break out in the Palestinian territories and Turkey's downing of a Russian plane further raises tensions with Moscow. The relatively more peaceful Asia-Pacific understandably draws less attention. This is a critical error.
The Asia-Pacific has been stable because the US has maintained undisputed hegemony in the region for decades. But the rise of China threatens this balance. China's economic ascendancy has caused longstanding US allies to distance themselves from Washington when their trade links are threatened. Beijing has advocated regional security and economic initiatives designed to exclude the US from East Asia. Meanwhile, China's military modernisation puts it in a position to deny US forces access to much of maritime Northeast Asia. The US must find ways of responding to these challenges. This will require consistent and persistent engagement with the region. Whether it can achieve this is questionable.
George Bush's election in 2000 was surrounded by rhetoric suggesting the new administration would concentrate its diplomatic efforts on consolidating US supremacy in East Asia. Yet after the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, almost all focus shifted to the Middle East. For the next decade, China slowly eroded US hegemony in the region.
Barack Obama's 'pivot to Asia' speech in 2011 seemed to signal a renewed attempt by the US to reinforce its East Asian leadership. Sixty percent of the US Navy was to be deployed in the Pacific. Diplomatic visits increased across the region and a fresh emphasis on free trade indicated the US would push back against Chinese gains in the military, economic, and diplomatic spheres. The effort was short-lived.
The 2013 budget sequestration and ongoing military commitments to the Middle East set back attempts to bolster the US Navy's presence in the Pacific. US domestic politics further undermined the pivot by preventing Obama from attending the 2013 APEC meeting in Indonesia. Congress also threatens to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional economic free trade deal unofficially intended to reduce the economic dependence of US allies on China by increasing their ties with the US.
More importantly, Washington failed to support its allies in their confrontations with China. Naval standoffs between China and the Philippines in 2011 over the disputed Scarborough Shoal drew only a limited response from the US. Washington also dithered about aiding Japan in 2014 when tensions escalated with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, a telling sign given that Tokyo is Washington's most important regional ally.
These setbacks show how easily the US can be distracted from its long-term objectives in the Asia-Pacific. Consequently, the US decision to stand up to China's increasing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea during a time of crisis in the Middle East late last year came as a surprise. In November, the USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial Chinese island, effectively refuting Beijing's territorial claims. Since then, the US has announced plans for naval exercises with Japan in the contested area and dramatically boosted its military aid to the Philippines.
The US play in the South China Sea suggests Washington is preparing to defend its East Asian leadership. Yet with so many issues clamouring for its attention, US diplomatic focus could easily waver once more. If Washington allows itself to be distracted again, it will find it much more difficult - and perhaps impossible - to reassert its hegemony.
William Baulch recently completed a double Bachelor degree in International Relations and International Security Studies at the Australian National University. He has previously published articles concerning Sino-Japanese security tensions and Australian defence policy.
Image credit: U.S. Embassy The Hague (Flickr: Creative Commons)