Media coverage of President Barack Obama's high-profile visit to Australia and plan to boost US presence in Asia may mask America's shrinking global footprint. The combination of concern over China and the US debt crisis could set Washington on a course to becoming a mere regional power in the Asia Pacific.
According to a just published report by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, defense spending is rising in Asia - much of it driven by China, which accounts for 30 percent of the region's military budget - and falling in Europe and US. The think tank attributes the trends to economic growth in Asia and what it calls strategic uncertainty. And that uncertainty has provided the US with a tempting opportunity to reassert itself in the region while cutting back elsewhere.
Last November, the Hawaiian-born Obama announced what his administration is calling a pivot towards Asia, representing a significant shift in policy since he took office. The change is driven by changing perceptions of Chinese power, but it's also partly a result of diminishing US financial clout. Although Washington insists it will retain military superiority, the pivot could well mark the beginning of a geopolitical shift that ends up with the US being predominantly a regional power in the Asia-Pacific.
In the early days of his administration, Obama went out of his way to avoid offending China. On his first visit to the country, he took a lot of flak from political supporters as well as opponents and human rights groups for toning down criticism of China's human-rights record. Then in July 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton challenged China's territorial claims to the South China Sea, stating that the US had a national interest in freedom of navigation there and calling for a regional code of conduct, even though Beijing prefers to deal bilaterally with its neighbors in such territorial disputes. Chinese officials interpreted Clinton's comments as hostile, and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing accused the US of virtually attacking China.
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In November last year Clinton formalized the policy shift in in an essay for Foreign Policy, stating that the US would pivot towards Asia.
The administration has clearly decided going easy on Beijing was yielding no results and sees China's growing military power in East Asia as a threat to US influence in the region, which went largely unchallenged since the end of the Korean War. Following Clinton's article was Obama's visit to Australia and his announcement that 2,500 US Marines would be deployed to a new base near Darwin.
Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight, a BBC News program.
Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. Yale Global