Pivoting Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire?

Obama’s foreign policy “pivot” has been described by The Australian’s Asia-Pacific editor, Rowan Callick, as the embrace of “a new positive narrative — engagement with economically vibrant and mostly democratic Asia — to substitute for the dreadfully negative one of trying to contain terrorism in the Middle East and Afghanistan”. Michael Klare, on the other hand, casts the move as a dangerously provocative attempt to capitalise on China’s growing dependence on Middle Eastern oil, delivered primarily by tankers through the South China Sea. From Al Jazeera:

By securing naval dominance of the South China Sea and adjacent waters, the Obama administration evidently aims to acquire the 21st century energy equivalent of 20th century nuclear blackmail. Push us too far, the policy implies, and we’ll bring your economy to its knees by blocking your flow of vital energy supplies.

Of course, nothing like this will ever be said in public, but it is inconceivable that senior administration officials are not thinking along just these lines, and there is ample evidence that the Chinese are deeply worried about the risk – as indicated, for example, by their frantic efforts to build staggeringly expensive pipelines across the entire expanse of Asia to the Caspian Sea basin.

Burma, too, might allow China to bypass the South China Sea, with pipelines and rail links to ports on the Indian Ocean. The country could, says Thant Myint-U, become “China’s California”, a scenario which raises the stakes in assessments of the current thaw in US-Burma relations and its implications for Beijing.

Klare continues:

All of this ensures that, environmentally, militarily and economically, we will find ourselves in a more, not less, perilous world. The desire to turn away from disastrous land wars in the Greater Middle East to deal with key issues now simmering in Asia is understandable, but choosing a strategy that puts such an emphasis on military dominance and provocation is bound to provoke a response in kind. It is hardly a prudent path to head down, nor will it, in the long run, advance America’s interests at a time when global economic cooperation is crucial. Sacrificing the environment to achieve greater energy independence makes no more sense.

Aside from the possibly elevated risk of conflict in the Asia Pacific, the pivot has attracted criticism from diverse quarters for its potential to distract from other strategic regions. Dan Blumenthal—who has been linked to Rick Perry’s campaign—wrote at Foreign Policy that “there is no dispute that we need to take serious steps to balance China’s power. But we cannot do so by “pivoting” away from two critical areas of the world” (South Asia and the Middle East). On the People’s Daily website, PLA Major General Luo Yuan similarly if more bluntly asked “If you shift your strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific, who will protect your own backyard[?] Don’t you worry about a second September 11 incident?”