When President Obama took office in 2009 and announced his administration would make a “pivot to Asia,” he hoped to offer a more future-oriented foreign policy — one that would directly engage China, prop up Chinese rivals Japan and India, and figure out the North Korea situation. In addition, he saw an opportunity for a big Asian trade deal that would both benefit America and contain China.
But in reality, Obama was handed two Middle Eastern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that weren’t going away overnight (and a global economic meltdown that had to be dealt with before anything else). His first major foreign policy speech? It was in Egypt on Islam. Then there was the Arab Spring and an aggressive Russia. A horrible civil war beginning in Syria and another about to get heated in Yemen.
There would be no actual pivot to Asia.
And in a fitting end, his major trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, blew up because of domestic politics and his final major foreign policy accomplishment was about the Middle East: the Iran Nuclear Deal.
But years later, the pivot to Asia is happening. But the person doing it is Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden.
Biden’s move on Wednesday formally declaring that United States troops would leave Afghanistan by mid-September was only the latest in moves that suggest that while Biden is interested in the Middle East, it is just another spot on the map that is not as important as China. Not even the prospect of some grand Middle East peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, something pursued by every president since Jimmy Carter, is on the front burner. Israel definitely noted that it took nearly a month in office for Biden to have a phone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
If Trump declared he was America First, then Biden’s central foreign policy premise might be Keeping China Second.
On Friday, President Biden will welcome the first foreign head of state to Washington. Which country gets the first invitation is usually a signal about the new administration’s priorities. In this case the first invitation went to Japan. Among the most important topics will be China. Biden is very focused on fixing a souring relationship between South Korea and Japan, America’s closest allies in Asia and keys to containing China.
Most of the action with the Biden administration — and the tensest conversations — have been about China. While the American political discussion is about COVID metrics and Dr. Seuss, Biden’s administration has been busy trying to build a coalition opposing Chinese actions against a Muslim minority (that also happens to occupy the most important economic strategic point for China’s future), as well as registering concerns over Hong Kong. And this week, Biden sent a delegation to Taiwan — the island nation China says it controls — to shore up confidence there that America has Taiwan’s back as China ramps up its military presence.
In fact, the biggest clue that Biden was going to pivot to Asia came when he selected Antony Blinken to be his secretary of state, a man whose job was to focus on Asia as the deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration.
It is not all Asia, of course. The world is a complicated place. On Thursday, Biden announced sanctions against Russia for a cyberattack during the Trump administration. Biden also had a call this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin about new Russian aggression in Ukraine. There is also the deteriorating situation in the Northern Triangle nations in this hemisphere that has led to more migrants on the US southern border.
Further, Biden hasn’t entirely left the Middle East either. He wants to re-up conversations about having the United States reenter the Iranian Nuclear Deal that Trump exited.
Still, Biden has tied his foreign policy to the Far East in ways no modern American president has done — maybe ever.