First floated more than a decade ago by then President Barack Obama, the “pivot to Asia” signaled the arrival of a new era of US confrontation with China in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Until the war in Ukraine, the need for a pivot away from a supposedly ungrateful Europe and toward fast-growing Asia was increasingly becoming orthodoxy within the US foreign-policy establishment—from “realist” and “liberal internationalist” scholars in academia to think tanks to talk-show hosts. China has been prominently featured in the Biden administration’s recent National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, though with the recognition of the revisionist nature of Russia’s power.
Today the war now raging in Eastern Europe has shown that the “pivot” approach was misguided. It’s not in the United States’ interest to turn away from Europe as it asserts itself in Asia—and the country is rich and powerful enough to secure its interests in both theaters.
The “pivot to Asia” school misreads how global power is distributed and takes for granted the United States’ continued economic decline and societal fracturing. These adherents assert that we are now in a multipolar world driving toward a Chinese empire by century’s end, with the United States a declining power and Russia a somewhat distant third great power—allowed in the club on account of its nuclear weapons, territorial bulk, and natural resources. Such analyses rely predominantly on comparisons of gross domestic product (GDP), population figures, and military size and professed capabilities.
But theorizing about multipolarity must be checked against realities on the ground. We are currently watching Russia near the one-year mark of a war against a country that—according to virtually all analysts and policy theorists—it should have overrun in a matter of weeks. In Ukraine, we are seeing once again that wars between states are not just about sheer numbers, whether GDP or populations or budgetary dollars and cents. The United States would do well to factor this lesson into its own grand strategic calculus going forward, especially on the Chinese challenge in Asia.
How powerful is China, really?
Arguments about China surging to dominate Asia, and then the world, are predicated on a skewed reading of the numbers. Level-headed qualitative assessments of what Beijing can bring to bear in an all-out conflict with the United States reveal a picture of the Sino-American power balance that is anything but clear or straightforward, with several variables that could determine the outcome very much in contention.
First, China’s economic progress has depended overwhelmingly on a massive transfer of US technology, expertise, and manufacturing to China. For too long, US corporations were given free rein to maximize the labor arbitrage China offered, with few considerations for how their investment decisions would impact national security. That era is rapidly coming to a close, with the United States now determined to block China’s unfettered access to its technological base, decouple key supply chains, and re-shore its manufacturing from China back to the United States and to Asian countries that share US interests and threat perceptions. Admittedly, decades of blind adherence to the ideology of globalization and Beijing’s unfettered access to the US industrial and research and development base have wrought serious damage. That said, the jury is still out on whether China can innovate on its own without access to US and European labs and universities—especially in defense.
True, China has become a manufacturing ground floor for the world, but being a dominant mercantile purveyor of consumer goods is one thing; learning how to build state-of-the-art weapons systems is another. It is one thing to build large numbers of ships and submarines; it is quite another to pit their actual capabilities against those of the US Navy. The bulk of China’s weapons are either systems purchased from Russia or systems derivative of Soviet and Russian designs. Judging by the performance of Russian weapons in Ukraine, especially precision munitions and targeting systems, anyone anticipating a sweeping Chinese victory against the United States in a battle over Taiwan should take a deep breath and think again.
Rethinking the affordability question
Primarily, the “pivot to Asia” argument rests on the assumption that the United States no longer has the resources for both the European and the Asian theaters. But is this really the case? US defense spending has been below its historical average for several decades. According to a World Bank assessment, the United States spent more than 9 percent of its GDP on defense in the 1960s. Cold War-era defense expenditures averaged 5 to 6 percent of GDP. Today, defense spending is around 3.5 percent. The point here is not to debate what percentage of GDP should be spent on defense, but rather to show that the concept of a force only capable of all-out war in one theater is predominantly a political decision during the past thirty years, not a necessity driven by resource constraints. The real question is where national defense fits in the United States’ overall budgetary priorities, determined by overall threat perceptions.
Every great power requires a robust economy that can sustain a strong military, as well as a cohesive society at home that can arrive at a consensus on foreign policy. On the economy, decades of off-shoring have hollowed out the country’s industrial foundations, leading to an over-emphasis on services and an under-emphasis on defense-related innovation, especially hypersonic propulsion. Meanwhile, the US military has spent the past two-plus decades focused on counterinsurgency priorities in the Global War on Terror while de-emphasizing state-on-state conflict. And the weakening of the middle class resulting from US industrial decline—plus, more recently, the strains caused by the pandemic and a surge in mass migration—has fueled group-based grievances and weakened national consensus on policy.
Still, none of these considerations prevent leaders in Washington from committing themselves to building the substantial political will needed to bring US defense spending closer to historical averages as a proportion of the economy. That would allow the United States to build a cross-domain Joint Force that can both confront the rising Chinese threat in Asia and shore up Europe. The latter strategic decision must be coupled with relentless pressure on European NATO allies to rearm. A NATO centered on properly resourced European conventional militaries, coupled with the US nuclear guarantee and high-end enablers, is more than able to deter Russia—and if need be, defeat it.
First principles of grand strategy
A larger question about US grand strategy going forward rests on an understanding of the fundamentals of the country’s geopolitical DNA. Historically, US security and prosperity have depended not only on securing the Western Hemisphere, but also on ensuring free and open access to the global market. The United States entered two world wars and then led the West in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and its satellites to ensure Europe remained its gateway into Eurasia. Similarly, it will not allow one power to dominate Asia.
In this context, the argument for a “pivot to Asia” at the expense of the European pillar of American grand strategy reflects a fundamental misreading of the nation’s history and its interests. The American people are unlikely to settle for second place in great-power competition. Its leaders owe them an honest debate over the stakes ahead.
Andrew A. Michta is dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany, and a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.
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