During the Cold War, Europe was America’s strategic priority. Despite the fact that the United States fought a bloody war between South Korea and Vietnam, East Asia was primarily a side show, providing security to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
However, in the new Cold War between the United States and China, the strategic priorities of the United States have reversed. Today, the US security strategy is dominated by the threat of China, and East Asia has replaced Europe as the leading theater in the world-defining geopolitical contest. And the security consequences of this shift in the focus of the United States are becoming more and more visible.
Most notably, American adversaries are using their commitment to China to test their determination. For example, Iran has solidified its position in stalemate negotiations on the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear agreement withdrawn by the US Donald Trump administration in 2018. Iranian leaders are reluctant to appeal to military forces and get stuck in a new Middle East war when President Joe Biden is very much planning a potential conflict with the PLA.
Russia’s current military threat to Ukraine by President Vladimir Putin is clearly based on similar calculations. Putin believes that the United States cannot afford to distract from its strategic focus on China, giving it much more freedom to restore Russia’s influence in the immediate vicinity.
Recent actions by Iran and Russia underscore the strategic dilemma of the United States. To increase the chances of a favorable outcome in the Cold War with China, the United States must maintain strategic discipline and avoid secondary conflicts that may distract attention and resources. Biden’s sudden and unsuccessful withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 underscores his administration’s determination in that regard.
It is not yet known how the US conflict between Iran and Russia will unfold, but there is no doubt that the US will sooner or later encounter similar challenges elsewhere. Some regional powers will want to bully their weak neighbors because they believe that the US pivoting to East Asia will make the US military intervention much less likely.
Indeed, the United States’ focus on China will have far less impact on security in Latin America and Africa than in the Middle East, and will have different implications for different regions. In Latin America and Africa, US policy over the next few years could emphasize economic, technological and diplomatic competition with China. The loser will be a country where China’s influence and profits are negligible.
The greatest security implications of the United States’ strategic shift to East Asia will be felt in the Middle East, where its security needs are most dependent on the United States. Perhaps focusing on China will dramatically reduce America’s role as a regional police officer. The United States will continue to provide weapons and assistance to its most important allies and partners, but the Middle East as a whole must live without the United States as a security provider.
More generally, if the United States maintains a strategic focus on China, it will inevitably lose considerable geopolitical influence. Countries that lose America’s big names will, of course, have less of a view of America.
However, the decline in America’s global status can also bring significant benefits to both the United States and other countries. Strategic discipline makes the United States less likely to wage unnecessary wars. The dark side of US unipolarization during much of the post-Cold War era was America’s recklessness in appealing to military forces. According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States has used troops abroad every year for 30 years since the end of the Cold War. In particular, two major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have wasted huge amounts of blood and treasure.
Elsewhere, America’s new geopolitical direction will force countries that have traditionally relied on the protection and support of the United States to learn to protect themselves for themselves. For example, some Middle Eastern countries have sought to rebuild relations and promote peace in preparation for the withdrawal of the United States. Relations between some Gulf countries and Israel have improved dramatically in recent years.
In Europe, “strategic autonomy” may be mostly rhetoric so far. But as the United States becomes more and more clear to its European allies that the region is a secondary priority, they will have to put rhetoric into action.
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once claimed that the United States is an “essential country” in the world. That explanation almost certainly applied to most of the post-Cold War era. But in the days of the US-China Cold War, the United States may be an integral force for East Asia, but not for the rest of the world. As this new reality takes hold, other parts of the world will have no choice but to adapt. It can lead to more military conflicts, but it can also lead to more peace. — Project Syndicate
* Minshin Pei, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, is a non-resident Senior Fellow of the German Marshall Foundation in the United States.
http://www.gulf-times.com/story/707442/The-security-consequences-of-America-s-China-focus The security impact of the US Chinese focus on security