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When it comes to China policy, is the Obama administration leaping from the frying pan directly into the fire? In an attempt to turn the page on two disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East, it may have just launched a new cold war in Asia—once again, viewing oil as the key to global supremacy.
The new policy was signaled by President Obama himself on November 17 in an address to the Australian Parliament in which he laid out an audacious—and extremely dangerous—geopolitical vision. Instead of focusing on the Greater Middle East, as has been the case for the last decade, the United States will now concentrate its power in Asia and the Pacific. “My guidance is clear,” he declared in Canberra. “As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.” While administration officials insist that this new policy is not aimed specifically at China, the implication is clear enough: from now on, the primary focus of American military strategy will not be counterterrorism, but the containment of that economically booming land—at whatever risk or cost.
The Planet’s New Center of Gravity
The new emphasis on Asia and the containment of China is necessary, top officials insist, because the Asia-Pacific region now constitutes the “center of gravity” of world economic activity. While the United States was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the argument goes, China had the leeway to expand its influence in the region. For the first time since the end of World War II, Washington is no longer the dominant economic actor there. If the United States is to retain its title as the world’s paramount power, it must, this thinking goes, restore its primacy in the region and roll back Chinese influence. In the coming decades, no foreign policy task will, it is claimed, be more important than this.
In line with its new strategy, the administration has undertaken a number of moves intended to bolster American power in Asia, and so put China on the defensive. These include a decision to deploy an initial 250 US Marines—someday to be upped to 2,500—to an Australian air base in Darwin on that country’s north coast, and the adoption on November 18 of “the Manila Declaration,” a pledge of closer US military ties with the Philippines.
At the same time, the White House announced the sale of 24 F-16 fighter jets to Indonesia and a visit by Hillary Clinton to isolated Burma, long a Chinese ally—the first there by a secretary of state in fifty-six years. Clinton has also spoken of increased diplomatic and military ties with Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—all countries surrounding China or overlooking key trade routes that China relies on for importing raw materials and exporting manufactured goods.