Two weeks ago China went on a diplomatic tour de force, asserting its rising position not only in its Pacific backyard but also globally.
The show of diplomatic dexterity demonstrated a degree of breadth in issues and bilateral partners unseen in the international arena since Henry Kissinger. Xi Jinping, China’s President, signed a climate accord with the United States, a trade agreement with Australia, thawed relations with Japan and deepened military ties with Russia. Quite an impressive array of accomplishments for a week’s work.
In many ways the emergence of China on the international scene with such rigueur surprises no one. China merely demonstrates the behavior one would expect from the world’s second largest economy (soon to be the first), securing access to resources and strengthening its ties with friend and foe alike. China is only starting to get comfortable in its role as a global bulwark.
Against this backdrop, US policy makers should rethink how it engages in the international arena. No longer can the US rely on an unrivaled dominance in global affairs. No longer can the US allow itself to enter wars in the Middle East with no strategy and no exit plan. No longer can the US allow itself to go for several years mired in internal political deadlock.
Most importantly the US should seek a way to devote more of its diplomatic and military resources towards managing its relationships in the Pacific and winding down its commitment elsewhere, i.e. continuing (or restarting) the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia.” The US has begun doing that by strengthening ties with Japan and Australia and with Obama’s visit to Burma. But its pivot has been hampered by a public and a Congress fixated on terror and a policy and military apparatus enmeshed in the Middle East.
I do not suggest that the US should (or even can afford to) abandon the Middle East in a wholesale manner but that it must wind down its limitless exposure to the region.
To do so the US needs to abandon the current moralistic strategy (of spreading democracy and human rights) towards the Middle East and adopt a more pragmatic realpolitik that aims to further US interests and establish the certain degree of “Pax Americana” in the region that existed prior to the Iraq War (of 2003).
This means working with (rather than castigating) secure, non-radical governments such as Egypt. It means telling Saudi Arabia and Turkey that their desire to see Assad removed will remain a fantasy as long as the “moderate rebels” remain somewhere between a shambles and a front for extremism. And finally it means actively working to bring Iran out of the cold despite Israeli objections.
The fact remains that the US-China relationship is and will continue to be the most important bi-lateral relationship in the world. The biggest geo-political developments (although perhaps not the most headline grabbing) in the next few decades will come out of the Trans-Pacific rivalry/alliance. China contributes 15% of global GDP (PPP basis), roughly three times the entire Middle East (including Israel). The relative difference between the two regions will continue to grow as China presses ahead and the Middle East flounders.
Last week’s summit in Beijing serves as an important wake up call that the US cannot afford to make mistakes anymore and cannot be distracted by side shows. The race for global dominance is back in full swing.