Since the begining of the 21st century there has been a raging debate whether the century would end as an Asian or Chinese century — just like the 19th century, which was a British one, and the American 20th century. A lot of factors have contributed to this notion. There is no doubt that Asia has been making giant strides over the last few decades. Asia has all the potential to take over from America. It is the largest and most populous continent in the world, where almost four billion people or 60 per cent of the world’s population live. It has China and India, the two most populous nations on the planet. Asia has, among its countries, India — the largest democracy in the world. Asia is also home and the cradle of all world religions and cults.
All the major conflicts, eccentric figures, crises and wars since, during and after the Cold War have taken place in Asia. The Korean, Vietnam, Arab-Israeli wars and the consequent mayhem — the Arab-Israeli conflict, the oldest and the most persistent conflict on earth, and the ensuing unending peace process — the recent wars against terrorism and the Taliban and Al Qaida in Afghanistan, and the Iraq war have all unfolded in Asia.
Imagine the world without Asia. It would be dull and boring without all the juicy stuff and excitement. Even the world’s prominent leaders — good and/or bad — were and are Asians. For example, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussain, Osama Bin Laden, Ayatollah Khomeini, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Yasser Arafat, Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, Hosni Mubarak, Bashar Al Assad, and Kim Il-sung to name a few.
Kuwait plays a host today to the two-day ‘First Asian Cooperation Dialogue Summit’ with more than 30 Asian nations attending, represented by their heads of states or government representatives. This is the largest gathering of an Asian forum of nations in an Arab and GCC state. Clearly, Kuwait wants to use it to showcase its strategy of pivoting east and looking towards Asia, that has been in the pipeline since the toppling of the Saddam regime in Iraq that menaced Kuwait for too long and prevented it from seeking a more robust and active foreign policy. Kuwait aims to make Asia its pivot and focus and the Asian Cooperation Dialogue a permanent fixture on the world stage.
It is natural for Kuwait and fellow GCC states to engage with fellow Asian states led by China, Japan and India, to whom Kuwait sells most of its oil and natural resources and imports most of its goods from. Kuwait, though, is not the only player to entertain a “look east” strategy. Most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are engaging in such a move. Even the US is doing so.
On January 5, 2012, US President Barack Obama announced the US Defence Strategic Review, ‘Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defence’. The strategy prioritises gthe US game plan and highlights the various regions in the world that represent vital interests for the US, thereby shifting US focus and resources from its traditional areas of interest in Europe, the Middle East and Arabian Gulf to Asia and the Pacific — the “Asia Pivot.” This clearly makes a shift from the Middle East towards Asia and the Pacific. Or back to Asia to deal with a host of challenges led by the emerging clout of China.
This signals a major shift in the US strategic focus and is a clarion message that the US is the only world power to counterbalance China. Having ended its bloody war in Iraq and completed its withdrawal and having started scaling down its military presence in Afghanistan, the US now has more resources and manpower to pivot towards China, East Asia and the Pacific. Moreover, during President Obama’s first visit to Australia last year, he announced the establishment of the first US naval base in Darwin, north-east Australia, marking a complete pivotal reorientation of US policy towards Asia and the Pacific.
The US is aware that it will not be facing a serious threat or rivalry from nation-states in the near future. Instead, there may be a host of threats and challenges from rogue states and elements and mainly from non-state actors. Therefore, the US must maintain effective forces, foreign aid and other national security programmes vital to US national interests.
The GCC states, the US and the world as a whole seem to be pivoting and looking eastwards to cash in on the mutual benefits and to deal with a host of challenges and the rising nations of East Asia led by China. If the US wars in West Asia in Iraq and Afghanistan and against Al Qaida were distractions and aberrations, it is clear that its focus on East Asia and the Pacific will be long-lasting and much more relevant to US supremacy in the 21st century.
But the question is: Will events, crises and mayhem permit that American pivot towards Asia and the Pacific to be a lasting and permanent one? Especially, as Peter Lee in his column in Asia Times argues that “Obama drags Middle East baggage to Asia”, where the rivalry between the US and China “is not driven by ideology or security anxieties, but a realist tango of interests”.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the Chairman of the political science department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji