Will Syria Kill the Asia Rebalance?

It's not as simple as you might think.

Reality is always messier than theory. It's an axiom in the military that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, and that should apply equally to foreign and national-security strategies writ large. It was therefore inevitable that the original plan rolled out by the Obama administration in 2011 to rebalance America's strategic focus and investments toward the Asia-Pacific would be more complex in execution than it initially seemed in speeches, articles and papers.

Ever since it was announced, scholars and policymakers from America's allies, partners, and potential adversaries in the Asia-Pacific have all been asking the same question: can rebalancing last? These concerns were raised in some quarters with the departure of national-security adviser Tom Donilon, NSC Asia pointman Jeffrey Bader, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell—all of whom were seen by some as the driving forces behind the rebalance. Such fears intensified when Secretary of State John Kerry began his Middle Eastern shuttle diplomacy, with some expressing concern that his actions demonstrated a disregard for American interests in Asia.

Of course, the policies enacted are more than a product of the personalities who produced them. The U.S. government remains staffed by an impressive array of Asia specialists and highly effective policymakers who share a commitment to sustaining and deepening the rebalance. Moreover, rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific is ultimately the president's policy, and President Obama has demonstrated his continued commitment to the region in his second term, sustaining the momentum of regional trade and diplomatic initiatives, hosting visits with six Asian leaders in Washington, and visiting Bangkok, Rangoon and Phnom Penh for his fifth trip as president to the Asia-Pacific.

Still, questions about the sustainability of rebalancing will inevitably continue, and U.S. intervention in Syria will likely reinforce preconceptions and fears of American strategic distraction. Indeed, while the Chinese government officially opposes U.S. intervention in Syria, my private conversations with Chinese scholars have reflected a range of reactions—from astonishment that the United States would willingly involve itself in Middle Eastern turmoil, to genuine confusion about what interests the United States sees for itself in Syria, to barely-contained enthusiasm for the prospect of the United States becoming embroiled in a Middle Eastern quagmire.

The reality is that the implications that an intervention in Syria holds for U.S. rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific will depend on the intensity of the attack and the duration of U.S. involvement. So far, U.S. ambitions appear to be relatively limited. Two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and five destroyers have taken position in the region, and the U.S. seems poised to strike Syrian military forces in an effort to, in the words of recent media reporting, “deter, punish, and degrade” Assad's military capabilities. It's important to note that neither of the two aircraft carriers in the area nor any of the five destroyers sent to the region—the Mahan, Barry, Gravely, Ramage, and Stout—were diverted from the Asia-Pacific. Secretary of Defense Hagel recently completed an important visit to Southeast Asia, where he assured the media that despite problems in the Middle East, "this area of the world is going to continue to be a significant part of redefining international affairs." At least for the time being, the only major sacrifice that Asia policy has had to make for the sake of an intervention in Syria has been the attention of senior policymakers and military leaders. Rebalancing can certainly survive this.

The real test for rebalancing will be if the intervention in Syria intensifies or endures for a long period of time. Senior leaders have commitments for regular travel to the Asia-Pacific, and postponements or an absence would send a stark message to the region that Washington's focus may be straying. Moreover, an intense, long-term intervention in Syria would necessarily divert military resources out of the Asia-Pacific. This would send a strong signal to America's friends and potential adversaries alike that American power, already hampered by sequestration, has very real limits.