Joshua Rovner: Nevermind ISIS and Putin — Asia matters more to U.S. strategy

This news story first appeared on November 4, 2014. For more information, click here.

Nevermind ISIS and Putin — Asia matters more to U.S. strategy

By Joshua Rovner, The Dallas Morning News; November 4, 2014

The grisly war with the Islamic State and the crisis with Russia continue to dominate the news — and capture the attention of U.S. leaders. Despite all this turmoil, the long-term focus of American foreign policy will not be on the Middle East or Europe. Instead, Washington will be drawn irresistibly to Asia.

No other region is as important for America’s long-term economic well-being. The U.S. trades twice as much with Asia as with Europe, and it is the largest market for U.S. exports outside of North America. Growing Asian economies demand an increasing share of the world’s energy resources, and China is also close to becoming the world’s biggest oil importer.

The military landscape also is changing. For a long time, the regional balance was clear: China was the dominant land power while the United States ruled the waves. As long as neither side could seriously challenge the other, there was little chance of a major regional war.

But China has invested heavily in forces that could complicate U.S. operations in the event of a conflict. This has caused some analysts to worry about China’s regional ambitions and the United States’ ability to defend its regional allies.

Rising powers try to expand and status quo powers try to resist them. The results can be catastrophic if managed carelessly. The U.S. approach to China, however, remains unclear. Washington continues to engage China in trade and encourage its participation in international organizations.

At the same time, it has increased the size of the U.S. military presence and developed a new war-fighting approach to counter China’s military capabilities. Whether the U.S. chooses to treat China as a rival or partner is an open question. We still do not know what the “pivot to Asia” means.

The answer will have profound implications. If the United States decides that the pivot is about containing China, it will need to shift resources from other regions and concentrate on Asia. For policymakers, this means rejecting calls for an open-ended military commitment to the Middle East and efforts to offload Europe’s security requirements to NATO’s European members.

For the military, it means focusing more on high-intensity air and naval operations and less on ground-intensive counterinsurgency warfare.

For diplomats, it means solving two puzzles: how to send deterrent threats to Beijing without being needlessly provocative and how to reassure allies about U.S. support without encouraging them to act recklessly.

Finally, defining the pivot will affect the defense industry, which has a large presence in Dallas-Fort Worth. Critical decisions about defense spending rest on readiness, strength and modernization. Sustaining high levels of readiness for a large ground force in the context of two wars has meant limiting investment in new platforms. Indeed, the rise in defense spending since 9/11 has been driven largely by skyrocketing personnel and operating costs, not by new acquisition. Policymakers might free up resources by focusing on Asia, even if that means living with instability elsewhere. The balance of defense spending, and the effects on the local economy, will depend in part on how policymakers deal with China.

Today’s headlines are about whether the United States will escalate the war in Iraq and whether it will do more to stave off Russian adventurism in Europe. These are important decisions and worthy of debate. But the truth lies just beyond the headlines: Untangling U.S. policy toward China will occupy policymakers long after the current crises have passed, and no other dilemma will have a greater impact on long-term U.S. interests.

Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at Southern Methodist University.