Hey, America: Forget the Middle East, Focus on China Instead
President Barack Obama's recent travel put his "pivot to Asia" back into the news. But his trip redefined that wise strategic goal as merely increased trade and investment, bereft of its original security component. That switch is due to a renewed fixation on the Middle East. After promising to end our interventions in the region, Obama again is succumbing to pressure from the military, Congress and the media once more to send troops to Iraq and to arm a phantom "moderate army" in Syria—all in the name of fighting terrorism, although terror has never presented an existential threat to any state, still less one as powerful and wealthy as America. The existential threat we may face will come from another direction: Asia.
Our narrow focus results from a political class and media that regularly reanimate our 9-11 trauma, perpetuating a public addiction to the Middle East melodrama, a public arrested by horrors on television and ignorant of far greater dangers looming in the Pacific.
The Pacific Ocean, not the Persian Gulf, is where our geopolitical attention should be focused. And for that region, we need a “security industrial complex” far less than geopolitical vision and a meaningful naval presence in the eastern Pacific to buck up our terrified allies.
There is a disturbing gap between the American establishment's view of China and that of its Pacific neighbors. The former sees business opportunities, the latter are terrified by China's military buildup, its proliferating claims on their territories and a parade of alarming incursions.
In 2013, East Asia contributed more than 40 percent of the world's economic growth. Our National Intelligence Council reported a “continuing” and “unprecedented shift in relative wealth and economic power roughly from West to East.” That economic shift is well known; less well recognized is the shift in military power and geopolitical tensions to that region.
In February, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reported that last year, Asia’s military spending rose while most Western countries cut theirs, accelerating a “shift in the global distribution of military power towards Asia. . . . In real terms, Asian defense spending in 2013 was 9.4 percent higher than it was in 2011.”
IISS also found that the growth in Chinese military spending eclipses that of its neighbors. In 2013, it accounted for 46 percent of the region’s combined military growth. Moreover, IHS Jane’s and other reputable military analysts say China’s actual military spending widely outstrips official figures.
As a consequence of this spending, and new Chinese territorial claims, Vietnam has nearly doubled its military spending, Japan is projecting its largest defense budget since World War II and the Philippines hastens to cobble together a viable navy. India and South Korea are now desperately engaged in military modernization. With China leading the way, Asian countries now account for about half of the world's arms imports.
But this is not an “arms race” anymore than an “arms race” preceded World War II. The allies tardily began to rearm after years of appeasing Germany. China’s neighbors are mustering belatedly and anxiously.
Armed to the teeth, Beijing brazenly presses territorial claims against its neighbors, from rocks, reefs and fisheries to islands and sea-lanes. In 2012, China provoked a dangerous dispute over islands administered by Japan in the East China Sea. A year ago, China stunned Japan, South Korea and the United States by suddenly declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over parts of that sea. Beijing now claims 90 percent of the South China Sea in which the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have claims. Beijing rejects multilateral discussions with its Southeast Asian neighbors, preferring bilateral meetings with individual countries, an approach that allows China to apply greater pressure.
The stakes in these disputes include deposits of oil and natural gas and vital shipping lanes. Moreover, China’s new naval and air strength enables it to project power even into the western Pacific and Indian Oceans. Chinese mastery of Pacific and Indian Ocean shipping lanes would give it a stranglehold over a global economy increasingly centered in Asia.