South China Sea or me?

Clyde Prestowitz

Several things came together yesterday that give rise to a fundamental question for the future path of the United States.

First, of course, was President Obama’s announcement of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. This was important not just in terms of Afghanistan but also as a signal that a "war weary" (the president’s words) America is beginning to move to reduce its far flung security commitments. Not coincidentally, the speech coincided with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s withdrawal from the debt reduction negotiations being chaired by Vice President Biden. Cantor said he refuses to countenance any thought of tax increases. In that context, it’s clear that America is reducing commitments not only because of war weariness, but also because it can’t afford them anymore.

The second item was the Washington Post report of a statement by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that the U.S. economic recovery is slowing and that the Fed doesn’t know why.

Third was another Washington Post story saying that "China warned the United States … not to let Southeast Asian countries drag it into ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea." The story quoted China’s Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai as saying "I believe the individual countries are playing with fire. I hope the fire doesn’t reach the United States" before his departure for weekend talks with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in Honolulu.

Finally, the Financial Times‘ Richard McGregor wrote that the U.S. strategic posture has reached an inflection point. Withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Middle, according to what McGregor identifies as an important Washington school of thinkers that includes many hawks, will allow the United States to "concentrate its national security firepower on Asia." According to this school of thought, "the road to maintaining U.S. global supremacy runs not through Baghdad, Jerusalem, or Kabul (would have been nice if they had told us sooner), but through the Asian sea lanes around China." The idea is that the only power with the potential to challenge the United States is China and Washington must thus refocus its attention on Asia.

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