The U.S. Should Focus on Asia: All of Asia

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Atlantic.

If we put a map of the world on the wall and put red pins on the conflict zones that most threaten American security and tax its resources, and green pins where economic growth is fastest and the promise of wealth greatest, we would see a lot of red pins clustered in the Middle East and a lot of green pins dotting Asia. So it should not come as a surprise that President Obama made “pivoting” away from the Middle East and toward Asia the cornerstone of his foreign policy. He saw the writing on the map, so to speak, and decided that the future of America should be entwined with the prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and China and not with the troubles of the Middle East.

The pivot’s aim, on the face of it, is economic: boosting the amount of business that America does with Asia’s booming economies, both investment and trade. Those plans, however, collide head-on with China’s regional ambitions. The pivot, to succeed, must block China’s hegemonic impulse and contain its rise in its own backyard. Containing China, therefore, thinks Washington, is the real strategic challenge facing America in the coming decades.

But this sort of thinking poses a false choice between the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. America is right to think that its rivalry with China will play out in Asia — but Beijing and Washington have very different conceptions of what Asia is. America thinks of Asia as the arc from the Straits of Malacca to the Sea of Japan: the area from Myanmar to the east, or, in other words, the region we call Southeast Asia (Myanmar,Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.) plus Northeast Asia (Japan, North Korea, South Korea). China, however, thinks of Asia as the entire vast landmass — the world’s largest both in area and population — that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

On this larger playing field, China is expanding its reach, across the continent and toward Europe, pivoting west just as America is pivoting east. In China’s view, the Middle East is integral to Asia’s power politics, while America, with its shrunken conception of Asia, thinks of the Middle East as excess baggage in a Pacific-focused foreign policy.

America, which is reducing its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, believes it can afford to think this way. China, by contrast, must look to the rich oil and gas fields of Central Asia and the Middle East to keep its surging economy humming. As James Fallows puts it, “As fast as [China’s] economy grows, its energy consumption grows faster still. Each percentage point increase in economic output leads to a more than proportional increase in demand for energy.” China is the world’s second-largest oil importer, behind only the United States. Its demand for oil will double again in the coming 15 years or so. Well before then, in 2020, China is projected to be importing 7.3 million barrels of crude a day — half of Saudi Arabia’s planned output. By that time, China will be the world’s number one oil consumer, and its manic rate of urbanization is likely to keep it that way. In the next decade alone, the rise of new Chinese cities, according to a McKinsey report, “will account for around 20 percent of global energy consumption and up to one-quarter of growth in [global] oil demand.” Two decades ago, China’s large industrial and population centers lay almost exclusively along its east coast. That region remains a dynamo, but people and production — and the hunger and thirst for energy — are moving west. China now needs more and more energy for its middle and western regions.

China’s fevered investing in west Asia is designed to create a sophisticated network of roads, railways and pipelines stretching home from the oil and gas fields of northern Iraq and Central Asia. Those land routes will complement the tanker fleets carrying oil and liquid natural gas across the Indian Ocean. There are plans for railway lines connecting Turkey to Pakistan and Iran, and pipelines running west over high mountain ranges into western China or to the port of Gwador, Pakistan, on the Arabian Sea coast.

To facilitate all this, China is forging close economic ties with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Its trade with Persian Gulf monarchies, too, is on the rise. Persian Gulf sovereign funds are pouring investments into China while a growing number of Chinese businesses ply their trade in Cairo and Baghdad. So many Chinese businessmen now visit Irbil in Northern Iraq that local law firms are looking for Mandarin speakers. China is investing billions to buy access to markets and resources, but also to increase its political influence. China’s scramble for Africa is being repeated in the Middle East.

China is naturally concerned about the security of its supply routes. Beijing sees American strategic relations with countries from the Pacific to the Persian Gulf as a noose that could choke China’s access to energy. Indeed, in the run-up to World War Two, America, Britain, and the Netherlands did deny energy- and resource-poor Japan access to oil, rubber, and iron shipments from Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union cast hungry eyes on the Persian Gulf with the idea of doing something similar to the West. These lessons are not lost on China’s strategic decision-makers. They believe access to energy will be at the heart of the next global rivalry — the one between China and America –too.

Confrontation between the two powers, whether over energy or markets, is no longer a far-fetched idea but entirely within the realm of possibility — that is what the American military build-up in Asia is signaling. In a military competition, America has the clear advantage. China knows the U.S. can use its superior sea power to squeeze China’s oil supplies; the American armada dominates the Pacific and Indian Oceans and every body of water in between. Two strategic choke points in particular matter to China. The first is the Straits of Malacca — the narrow, 500-mile long straits separating Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. The Straits of Malacca is a shallow, heavily traveled, easily blocked stretch of water — in the Phillips Channel, just south of Singapore, it is less than two miles wide. It is the eastern doorway to the Indian Ocean and one of the world’s critical maritime choke points. More than 85 percent of the oil and oil products bound for China pass through the Straits from west to east. For Chinese strategists, resolving what they call “the Malacca dilemma” is a major preoccupation. The second choke point is the Persian Gulf.

In order to escape the Malacca dilemma, China has turned to a series of overland pipelines linking the eastern industrial centers of Shanghai and Guangzhou with western China and Turkmenistan, respectively. China has also looked to Myanmar as an alternate route that avoids the Straits. There, Beijing has had to compete for influence with Delhi. India, too, is growing rapidly, and is looking to the same Middle Eastern and Central Asian sources to sustain its economy.

Even as it develops overland alternatives, China is building a blue-water navy and has invested in the so-called “string of pearls” strategy of building bases in the Indian Ocean (in places such as Sri Lanka) to protect its sea routes to Africa and the Middle East. There is already a brisk competition between China and India over which country will dominate the Indian Ocean. The two Asian powers eye one another with suspicion even as they cooperate to address the menace of piracy. But China is also worried about U.S. control of the high seas. The Scarborough Shoal row, in which China asserted primacy over the South China Sea and met resistance from several Southeast Asian nations backed by the U.S., brought the problem into sharp relief. At that point, America had already announced that it would deploy 2,500 U.S. Marines to Australia and help the Philippines to upgrade its navy.

But of equal importance is American naval domination of the Persian Gulf, the source of much of China’s future energy supply. It is a critical strategic advantage in managing China’s rise, a fact that Beijing is acutely aware of. The U.S., however, does not seem to be. America is focusing on the Straits of Malacca but proclaiming its goal of leaving the Persian Gulf. We will not need Persian Gulf oil and gas, American officials visiting the Gulf states tell their hosts, so we will be shrinking our footprint here. We may not need Persian Gulf oil, but China will, and so will the countries we depend on to balance China in its backyard: Japan and South Korea. The administration has made it clear that we are now in the business of containing China. So should we not be doubling down on the Persian Gulf, a region we have already secured for 60 years, rather than abandoning it at the precise moment that it has achieved new strategic value?

American retreat from the Middle East will be welcomed in China as a strategic boon: it will give China a free hand to shape its energy security in west Asia, which in turn will give Beijing greater leverage in resisting American pressure in the Asia-Pacific. This region is not only a source of valuable energy to China, but is also a cultural and ethnic bridge to the Turkic Muslim minority living in China’s western-most provinces, which gives China a security interest there as well. Until the pivot, China may have worried that American presence could encourage Central Asian states closest to China’s western borders to resist Beijing’s influence, as is happening in Southeast Asia. Beijing has sought to bolster that influence, integrating parts of the Middle East and Central Asia closest to its borders into its economic orbit, and founding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a rival to American power styled as a counterweight to NATO or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). With Iran and Russia’s backing, SCO is working to limit American diplomatic presence in the region.

America has got its Asia strategy wrong. It should start with a broader view of Asia, one that reflects the strategic interests that bind the eastern and western parts of that continent and drive China’s role there. In that larger context American presence in the Middle East is an enormous asset that will become more valuable as America’s rivalry with China intensifies in the years to come.