U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War during the 1960s, and the grievous losses the U.S. Army experienced in men and materials, were the major topics up for discussion during the U.S. presidential election in 1968. Perhaps Richard Nixon’s adoption of a position for reducing U.S. involvement in this war was one of the reasons for his presidential victory. During the second half of 1969 – his first year in office – Nixon defined the features of future changes to U.S. foreign policy in a number of speeches. These changes represent what is known as the Nixon Doctrine, which changed the nature of U.S. allied relations around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia. While Nixon pledged that the United States would protect its allies in the face of military threats — even if that meant it would be forced to use its nuclear umbrella —Nixon encouraged those allies to bear more of the burden of war. After that, the United States hastened steps to decrease the level of its direct involvement in the Vietnam War and to decrease its presence in all of Southeast Asia. As a byproduct of that policy, the Vietnam War ended to the advantage of the Soviets, whose expansion in Southeast Asia the U.S. had originally intervened to stop and against which the U.S. had established the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, or SEATO, in 1954. (Thanks to the Nixon Doctrine, there were no longer those who justified the existence of this organization, so SEATO disbanded itself in 1977).
In subsequent years, the United States strengthened its presence at unprecedented levels in another part of the world – the Middle East; this was done for many reasons, the foremost being the security of the sources and lines of transit for energy vital to the economy of the United States. U.S. presence escalated noticeably, especially during the Iran-Iraq War and then with Desert Storm, the Iraqi no-fly zone in the 1990s, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the invasion of Iraq itself in 2003 and its occupation for eight years. This direct involvement cost the United States trillions of dollars, without definite proof that the United States had achieved its goals. This set off a serious discussion in Washington about the utility of continuing U.S. involvement at this level in the Middle East, particularly in the aftermath of the U.S. fiscal crisis and the emerging need to strengthen U.S. presence in other regions of the world.
The Rebalance to Southeast Asia
Now, with the second term of the Obama administration nearing its conclusion, it is possible for us to undertake a complete review of the principles known as the “Obama Doctrine,” which represents a wide range of changes to U.S. foreign policy that were meant to deal with a number of issues. It is possible for us to talk about two major issues that are directly linked to one other. The first is the realization by the U.S. that the largest portion of economic and political developments in coming decades will be limited to Southeast Asia; therefore, it is necessary to strengthen U.S. presence in this critical region, especially with the accelerating growth of Chinese capabilities and presence. The second issue is U.S. recognition of its inability to continue bearing the burdens of its presence in the Middle East at the same levels as it did during the first decade of this millennium, especially with the emerging need to strengthen U.S. presence in Southeast Asia. The Obama administration came up with one solution for both issues: shift U.S. weight from the Middle East to Southeast Asia – or “rebalancing” as it is known by the U.S. State Department – while encouraging U.S. allies in the Middle East to take initiative and play greater roles in the region instead of depending on the United States. Meanwhile, the United States can then use freed-up resources from the Middle East – particularly military resources – to strength its presence in Southeast Asia, especially in the face of China.
The Rise of China
It is not possible to describe the trajectory of China’s rise in recent years as anything but meteoric. It is a rise that occurred while the U.S. was napping. With the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, Washington believed that communism had ended and that Chinese communist rule would follow its Soviet counterpart sooner or later. During the decade that followed the end of the Cold War, Washington dealt with Beijing like it was little more than a regional power susceptible to being pressured by different means. This involved the enticement of increased economic cooperation and U.S. support for Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001; intimidation by strengthening the military capabilities of Chinese adversaries, like Japan and Taiwan; and perhaps also the direction of tough messages, which may have included the devastating smart bomb strike that targeted the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in January 1999, “by mistake.” At the turn of this century, according to U.S. estimates, only approximately 20 nuclear missiles in Chinese possession were capable of reaching the heart of the United States, in addition to only one submarine equipped with a dozen mid-range nuclear missiles. The number of Chinese nuclear tests did not exceed five percent of those of its U.S. counterpart; however, Chinese capabilities advanced exponentially during the subsequent 15 years.
The advancement of Chinese economic and military capabilities encouraged Beijing to take action and to raise the level of demands for areas it considers Chinese by right. One of the most prominent of these is in the South China Sea, the most important part of which China has claimed since 1947. However, with the exception of having printed maps that place these islands within Chinese borders, China did not take any tangible, meaningful steps during subsequent years to affirm Chinese ownership of these areas. During the past few years, however, as the U.S. began rebalancing to Southeast Asia, China increased its military deployment in the South China Sea. This included the construction of a number of artificial islands and their subsequent transformation into Chinese military bases, a tactic for establishing Chinese presence in this critical region. The South China Sea represents not only an important corridor for international commerce, but also potentially contains massive natural resources around some of the disputed islands.
Although the United States has worked to develop its relationship with Chinese adversaries on the issue of the South China Sea in recent years – including the start of accelerated and unprecedented cooperation between the United States and its most famous adversary in the region, Vietnam – China continues to move quickly, exceeding the ability of the United States to respond, at least for now. This summer, China rejected the decision of an international tribunal, which ruled that China had violated the sovereignty of the Philippines in the South China Sea. Recently, China caused a major stir when the new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, began an antagonistic campaign against the United States, which reached its zenith this week when he announced, from Beijing, his disengagement from the United States. This is, in effect, the beginning of a process by the Philippines to shift its strategic alliance from the United States to China. By all measures, this is a major setback for the United States and its attempt to strengthen its presence in Southeast Asia.
China Is Headed for Syria
However, it does not seem like China will refrain from throwing punches at the United States. A knockout blow from China would undermine the foundation upon which Obama has built his plan for confronting Chinese influence: decreasing American presence in the Middle East to provide sufficient resources for rebalancing in Southeast Asia. There have been recurring reports about China strengthening its naval presence in the East Mediterranean, ranging from their sending some state-of-the-art naval units to the Syrian coast, to unconfirmed reports about China sending and requesting a port in Syria for its only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. China, of course, has its reasons for being in Syria and taking part in the fight against terrorism, especially considering the thousands of Chinese Uighurs* fighting in Syria under the banner of the Islamic State and others. They represent a major threat to Chinese stability if they leave Syria. Although it is likely China realizes that the best means of defense is a strong offense, these days the best means of defense in the face of U.S. presence in Southeast Asia is to pressure the United States in other regions of the world, particularly in the Middle East where the United States has collapsed under the burden of its presence there. It is too early to determine the rate at which China is building its presence in Syria, especially since it still observes a policy of strict secrecy. However, the transformation of Syria into an arena of global confrontation, with Russia on one side and the United States and NATO on the other, is encouraging China to vie with the United States in its lair – the Middle East.
*Translator’s note: Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group native to China's far western region of Xinjiang, which was sporadically controlled by Chinese dynasties over the centuries.